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Under Your Spell
Elegance St. James, Countess of Lanshire, took a sip of champagne and glanced about the salon. Everyone with a title and two pence was present. But she seemed to be the only witch.
And that was just as well, for she was weary of witches. Tired of their conniving and plotting and spells. Tired of their spats and alliances, their triumphs and failures. It was time to be normal. Normal but irresistible, she thought, and carefully preened her aura. Tonight she was beautiful, at least to others.
Near a table spread with every conceivable delicacy, Lord Milton shoved a peach tart into his mouth, glanced her way, then glanced again, eyes widening with interest. The little baron was middle-aged, homely, and somewhat paunchy. Rumor suggested he was also financially unstable, which made him a perfectly suitable match. Ella gave him her best come-hither smile.
From near the doorway by the lead-glass windows, the Viscount of Cleftmore scrutinized her. He was tall, elegant, and wealthy. She granted him a cool nod, then turned back toward Milton, who was, even now, struggling through the mob toward her, jiggling between a potted palm and a liveried servant, then striding rapidly across the hardwood floor. Ella offered him an encouraging smile. Let the others battle for the charms of the handsome, well-placed suitors. Let them become besotted and bedded and wedded. She had done so. It was not for her.
"My lady." Lord Milton was panting rather heavily by the time he reached her side. He was balding slightly, she noticed happily, and was a fair bit shorter than she.
"My lord," she said, and tiltingher head, gave him a coy glance through lowered lashes. As lashes went, hers were far from spectacular. In fact, nothing about her physical appearance was particularly noteworthy. Never had been. Her sister Maddy had inherited their father's dark, good looks, leaving Ella rather ordinary by comparison, with hair that could not quite decide whether it was brown or red and curves that would never quite . . . well . . . curve. She was tall. Some might say spindly. Indeed, some had said just that. But none would say so tonight, for tonight she had employed all her powers to make her appear dazzling. And her powers were considerable.
"You are looking quite . . ." Lord Milton's eyes were round, his face flushed. "Quite . . . dazzling."
"My lord," she breathed again, and raised the pale lace fan she'd brought just for this purpose. She couldn't say why men found it appealing when women peered at them from above fans like so many peeping cockatiels, but apparently they did. "You flatter me."
"Flattery. No. No." He was perspiring a little above his upper lip, which was considerably larger than his lower. "Not at all. You are beauty itself. Like a beacon that . . ." From across the room, Miss May Anglican laughed. She was flirting. And by the sound of it, her chosen companion was either relatively attractive or extremely wealthy. Either was acceptable to May, though, in actuality, she flirted only to make Lord Gershwin jealous. After all, a mistress who could not make her lover envious might just as well be a wife.
But Milton seemed to notice neither the flirtatious tone of their hostess's laughter nor the burgeoning crowd. "Like a beacon that . . ." he reiterated, but his words faltered again. Ella stifled an impatient urge to tap her toe, gave him a hopeful smile over the top of her ridiculous fan, and visualized the word shines. It did no good whatsoever. "That . . ." He floundered.
Miss Anglican, or Merry May, to those bold enough to know her well, was making her way through the crowd toward them. It was impossible to miss her. For while most posh ladies of the ton dressed in muted pastels and free-flowing gowns that fell like water from their nipples to their slippers, May wore anything she damned well pleased. And today tight-fitting, garish red seemed to please her tremendously.
"A beacon that, umm . . ."
"Ella!" said May, shattering Milton's concentration and ruining any hope of a quickly concluded compliment. "I am so glad you have come." May was small and dimpled, with the demure personality of a beleaguered terrier. And if she was not quite beautiful, it hardly mattered. For she was Merry May, siren of every soiree, belle of every ball. Not Ella's usual type of friend, but then Ella had changed, hadn't she? Had left her life of dark concentration behind.
"Miss Anglican," Ella said, giving the other a courteous smile and carefully maintaining propriety lest she scare off her potbellied prey. "I wouldn't have missed one of your gatherings for all the world. Indeed London is blessed to have—"
"Oh pish," May said, and taking Ella's arm, steered her aside. "If you'll excuse us, Lord Milton, I fear I need a word with . . ." Her eyes were shining with mischief and humor. "Your beacon."
With that, they left poor Milton in the rear.
"Listen, May—" Ella began, but May stopped her immediately.
"What the deuce do you think you're doing?"
Ella stifled a scowl, remembering to keep her expression pleasant, to keep her image obtuse. It was one of the more difficult tasks in her dealings with the ton. "I'm simply enjoying your fine party," she said, and glanced over May's shoulder at the little lord. He seemed to still be wrestling the kinks out of a few stunning similes.
"Milt?" said May, voice rye-toast dry. "You're considering Milt?"
"I'm sure I've no idea what you're talking—"
"She would have teeth like a picket fence."
Ella smiled at a passing dowager. Her skin was rice-powder white. Her hair was piled blue and high, reminiscent of days she seemed not quite ready to leave behind. "You haven't gotten into the blue ruin again, have you, May?" Under Your Spell. Copyright © by Lois Greiman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.