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A View to a Kiss
Doncaster House was a true mansion, an imposing edifice in the grandest style set in Mayfair. Tall windows glowed with candlelight and the front doors were thrown wide open to admit the throngs of elegantly attired guests climbing the steps. The air was filled with the soft strains of music from inside the house, mixed with the jingle of harnesses and the clatter of carriage wheels outside. The guests must number in the hundreds, all of them wealthy, fashionable, and important.
One man surveyed the scene from under lowered brows as he mounted the steps, rapping his cane sharply on each tread. He had never been to Doncaster House before, and his eyes roamed over the expanse of stone and glass and wrought iron as if he were counting the windowpanes and pediments. Halfway up the steps he paused, fishing a handkerchief from his pocket to blot his face.
A pair of young men...dandies from the looks of them...burst through the doors, talking and laughing in the careless, too-loud manner of men who have drunk too much. They clattered down the steps, jostling him out of the way without so much as a backward glance. He teetered on the steps for a moment before a footman hurrying in their wake came to his aid, offering his arm and a murmured solicitation. The guest nodded, leaning heavily on the footman until he got his balance back.
"Blasted scoundrels," he muttered, now breathing heavily. "In my day young men knew better than to go about too foxed to walk straight."
"Yes, sir," murmured the footman, discreetly slipping one hand under the gentleman's elbow as he helped him up another step.
"And mind, I'm notsorry to be in my dotage, if that is England's future," the old man went on. "Save for your old age now, lad, and pray they don't bring the country to complete ruin!"
"Yes, sir." The footman eased him up another step.
"If my boys had behaved that way, I'd have taken a cane to them, I would have . . . " His voice trailed off and he sighed. "Eh, but they're both dead now. Gone with my dear wife in 'ninety-six to the consumption."
"Terribly sorry, sir," said the footman, urging him up the last step.
"What, what? Not your fault." He patted the footman's arm. "There's a good lad. Write to your mother, would you?"
"Er...yes, sir." The footman bowed as the old man went into the house, leaning on his cane and favoring his left leg.
Inside the house, the elderly gentleman shuffled through the bustle, handing off his cloak and hat to another footman and making his way toward the ballroom to greet his host. It was a grand ball, but he'd arrived rather late, and the receiving line had dwindled to almost naught.
"Lord Henry Wroth," a servant announced him.
The Earl of Doncaster bowed, tall and urbane, his dark hair threaded with silver. "Good evening, sir."
"And to you." Lord Wroth executed a shaky bow over the countess's hand. "Madam."
"Welcome to our home," said Lady Doncaster with a gracious smile. She was younger than her husband, with a face more handsome than beautiful. "How kind of you to come."
Wroth chuckled, a hoarse, rusty sound. "And my great pleasure it is, too. But I hope you've not served a surfeit of punch. It tends to go to the young men's heads, it does."
"Indeed not," she replied smoothly. "I quite agree with you, sir."
He nodded his shaggy gray head. "Well done, madam, well done."
He bowed again and hobbled away, but slowly enough to overhear the exchange behind him in low tones.
"Wroth?" murmured the earl. "I thought that title died out."
"Apparently they found an heir," said his wife. "A distant cousin, I believe."
"Ah." This satisfied the question for Doncaster. He greeted his next guest with the same cordial manner as he'd shown the unknown Lord Wroth. Lady Doncaster followed suit, the curious old man dismissed from her mind as well.
The man called Lord Wroth listened with satisfaction, and went on his way. They would hardly be so calm if they suspected they had just welcomed a common spy named Harry Sinclair into their ballroom, in the completely fabricated guise of a recently discovered Lord Wroth. Then again, if he did his job properly, they'd never suspect anything like that at all.
The ballroom was a sight to behold. Long swaths of pale green silk hung from the walls, glowing in the light of dozens of fine wax candles augmenting the gas lamps. Harry had been to balls before, but never seen anything quite like this. There were flowers everywhere, all white; everything in the room was either green or white, he noted, scanning the room over his spectacles. It must have cost a bloody fortune just to decorate for an evening's entertainment.
His gaze flitted over the three sets of French windows standing open onto a wide terrace, just visible beyond the glow of the ballroom. Beyond that, he knew, lay a large garden. Guests were strolling in and out of the doors, for it was a warm evening and the mass of tapers made it warmer. It would be entirely possible for anyone to slip around to the back of the house, go through the garden, and in the terrace doors. There was no attempt to secure the house at all. Eyebrows lowered, he trudged on.
When he had gone halfway around the room, he plopped down into a chair too near the musicians for anyone to be sitting and conversing nearby. He pulled out his handkerchief again and mopped his face. Within moments a footman stopped beside him. "May I fetch you a drink, sir?"
"Aye," said Harry. "None of that pissy champagne. Some good port."
The footman bowed his head. "Yes, sir." He hurried away and returned in a moment with a glass. As he offered the tray, he tilted it too much and sent a wave of plum-colored port sloshing onto Lord Wroth's yellowed cuff.A View to a Kiss
. Copyright © by Caroline Linden. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.