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The Unexpected Bride
By Elizabeth Rolls
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn impartial observer might have been excused for stating that the crowd at Almack's Assembly Rooms on that fine spring night was entirely made up of members of the Ton who were intent upon enjoying themselves to the hilt. Young ladies dressed demurely in silken gowns of various pastel shades swirled past escorted by nattily attired beaux. Anxious mothers chatted together in groups, each certain that her daughter outshone every other girl in beauty and elegance. All in all it was a scene of great interest to the student of human nature.
One fair-haired young gentleman stood apart, however, looking the picture of gloom. Although dressed with great elegance and propriety he did not appear to be entirely at ease in his surroundings. He returned an occasional polite rejoinder to greetings from various acquaintances, all of whom registered surprise at finding him in such a place. Otherwise the Honourable George Carstares seemed to be very much in a brown study, with a frown of worry in his blue eyes.
He looked with ever-decreasing expectation and hope at the entrance doors of Almack's Assembly Rooms. It wanted but ten minutes to eleven. If Peter doesn't arrive soon, he thought, they won't let him in at all. Lord! If those high-nosed ladies wouldn't relaxtheir rules for England's hero, his Grace the Duke of Wellington, they'd certainly refuse admittance to Peter Augustus Frobisher, Seventh Earl of Darleston! Not for all his handsome looks and undeniable charm would they unbend!
It occurred to him on a wave of optimism that if Peter didn't arrive in time there was nothing to stop him leaving and seeking more convivial entertainment elsewhere. The Patronesses might insist arbitrarily that no one should enter after eleven, but there was nothing in the rules to stop a fellow leaving whenever he pleased. Mr Carstares devoutly hoped that such a thought would not occur to any one of the six great ladies who presided over Almack's. He had little doubt that they would be able to persuade the Ton to abide by such a decree, and then one would be in the basket!
A faintly surprised drawl brought an end to these depressing reflections. "You here too, George! Whatever for? Don't tell me Darleston is sacrificing both of us this evening!"
Carstares swung around, the gloomy expression giving way to something more like his usual merry smile. "Good God! Carrington! Did Peter ask you as well? What the devil is he up to?"
"Standing us up, by the look of things!" answered Viscount Carrington. "Never mind, in less than ten minutes we can go and wait for him in the street! Give him another few minutes out there and then toddle off to more entertaining pastures!"
"Just what I was thinking!" said Carstares with a grin. He ran a hand through his fair locks. "D'you know why he asked us to meet him here?"
"Not the least notion. Do you?" asked Carrington curiously.
Carstares rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "Got a slight suspicion. Was with him, you know, when he heard about the death of young Nicholas Frobisher in that hunting accident last winter."
Carrington looked more than a little puzzled. "Well, yes. I know Peter was cut up about it. He was fond of the lad, and he was Peter's heir after all, but there's nothing in that to make the fellow run mad!" Then, in very polite tones, "Good evening, Lady Sefton. How delightful to see you!"
The kindly-looking peeress smiled gently at him and said, with not a trace of sarcasm, "And so unusual to see you here, Lord Carrington and Mr Carstares! But you must come further in. The young ladies do not linger at the front doors in hope of dance partners, you know. I shall make it my especial concern to introduce you to the very prettiest!" Not a muscle in her face betrayed what George Carstares knew must be her considerable inward mirth at the expression of startled horror on the Viscount's face.
The Patroness delivered her final thrust with a dead straight face, "And, of course, my lord and I shall look forward to your company at supper!" She departed to mingle with the crowd, not waiting to hear their response to what amounted to a royal command.
Carstares groaned. "I knew one of them would think of it!"
"Think of what?" asked Carrington. "Oh, never mind! We're done to a cow's thumb now! Get on with your theory, and later on we can toss for the honour of calling Peter out!"
After a moment to gather his wits Carstares continued, "So Nicholas is dead. Don't suppose you know who the heir is now?"
"Can't say I do," replied Carrington. "I don't keep track of all my friends' distant relations!" Then, in tones of shock as a possibility struck him, "My God! It couldn't be! Not Jack Frobisher?"
Carrington thought about it. "Peter won't stand for that. He'll have to remarry. Unpleasant for him after his experience with Melissa, but he might choose better this time!"
"Hope so," said George. "Because I think that's what we're doing here. Helping Peter choose a wife! Or at least providing moral support while he chooses! And thank God - if he's here, he ain't contemplating marriage to Caroline Daventry!"
Whatever Lord Carrington might have said in response to his friend's suspicions was destined to remain unspoken. At that moment a startled hush came over the crowd and they realised that most people were staring in disbelief at the entrance. An even more startled murmur replaced the hush as the tall gentleman in the doorway moved into the room.
He seemed quite unconcerned by the collective gaze and whisper of the assembled throng, but stood and surveyed the scene carefully. His was a tall, athletic figure, dressed with unobtrusive elegance in the satin knee-breeches and swallow-tailed coat which were de rigueur for a ball. His cravat was tied with an artistry calculated to turn any aspirant to fashion pea-green with envy. The curly black hair was brushed into the fashionable Brutus and the dark brown eyes seemed to search the room.
After a moment this direct gaze fell upon Lord Carrington and Mr Carstares. A smile lightened the rather sombre countenance as the gentleman came towards them. This was Peter Augustus Frobisher, Earl of Darleston, veteran of the Peninsular War and hero of Waterloo.
He reached his friends and said with a faint twinkle, "How kind of you not to depart! Had you quite despaired of me?"
"You'd have had two friends the less if you hadn't shown your front, my boy!" said Carrington trenchantly.
Excerpted from The Unexpected Bride by Elizabeth Rolls Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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