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Imogen Hebden knew it was no use blaming the Veryan sisters when her first ball ended so disastrously.
Not that it was all that much of a ball. There was scarcely anyone in town so soon after Christmas. But that, as her aunt had pointed out, was all to the good. Imogen could experience the flavour of a select Ton gathering at Mrs Leeming's soirée without exposing herself to anyone that really mattered.
Still, Imogen had been really pleased when a gentle man had actually asked her to dance. Even though it was with the rather wooden expression of a man bent on doing his duty by the night's resident wall flower.
Mr Dysart had looked bored through out the set, and the moment the music had ended, accorded her a very stiff bow, and high tailed it to the card room.
That had been when she noticed that one of the three sets of ruffles on her skirt had come adrift and was hanging down in an untidy loop at the back. She did not think Mr Dysart had been responsible. She would have felt it if he had trodden on her hem. Besides, he had maintained a good arm's length from her at all times. No, it was far more likely that she had snagged it on the chair leg when she had leapt up in response to her first invitation to dance at her first, sort of, ball.
She had begun to make her way to the retiring room so she could pin it up, when the Honourable Miss Penelope Veryan, flanked on one side by her younger sister Charlotte, and on the other by her friend Lady Verity Carlow, had moved to block her path.
'I do hope you enjoyed your dance with Mr Dysart,' Penelope had cooed, with a smile that did not reach her eyes. 'But I do feel I should warn you not to place too much hope in that quarter. He is a particular friend of mine, and only asked you to dance because he knows we are taking an interest in you.'
Mr Dysart's behaviour now made perfect sense. Lots of people were keen to curry favour with the wealthy and influential Veryan family. It was a little disappoint ing to learn that Mr Dysart had not sought her out for her own sake. But at least now, she would not have to pretend to like him when she ran across him again. It was strange, but during the whole year she had been living with Lady Callandar, though she had been introduced to a great many people, she could not say she liked any of them all that much.
'I suppose you expect me to thank you,' mused Imogen aloud, though she was not at all sure she was grateful for Penelope's interference. She thought it might have been preferable to have sat on the side lines all night, rather than have a man dance with her only because he sought Penelope's good opinion or, rather, that of her father, Lord Keddinton.
There had been a flash of anger in Penelope's eyes, but with her customary poise, she quelled it almost at once.
'How is your court dress coming along?' hastily put in Lady Verity.
Imogen turned to her with relief. Although she had absolutely nothing in common with the supremely fashionable Lady Verity, who never seemed to think about anything but dresses and parties, at least there was not an ounce of malice in her.
'I have had the final fitting,' Imogen replied.
'Do you not like it?' Charlotte pounced on Imogen's less than enthusiastic response. 'I heard that Lady Callandar hired the very best modiste, and spent an extortionate amount on yards and yards of the most exquisite Brussels lace!'
Imogen could not help bristling at Charlotte's implication that no matter how much money was spent on her, or how skilled the dress maker, she would never manage to look anything but a sad romp. Especially since Charlotte was correct.
The flimsy muslin gowns that Imogen's aunt dressed her in, with their straight skirts and delicate ruffles, permitted no activity more strenuous than strolling to the shops. And in Imogen's case, not even that. Why, she seemed to be able to part a shoulder seam between leaving her bedroom and arriving in the breakfast parlour. And as for her hair
Well, it went its own way no matter how often Pansy, the maid her aunt had provided her with, was called to rearrange it. Charlotte's ringlets, she noted enviously, fell decoratively around her face, not into her eyes. If only her aunt would permit her to just keep her hair long and braid it as she had done before! But no. Fashionable young ladies had their hair cut short at the front. And so poor Pansy had to wield the curling tongs, tie in the bandeaus and jab in the pins.
Which reminded her: that torn flounce still needed pinning up.
'I look perfectly frightful in my court dress,' admitted Imogen with a wry smile. 'Now, if you will excuse me ' And she began once more to press towards the exit.
The other girls fell into step beside her, Charlotte linking her arm, which obliged her to match their languid pace.
'Just wait until you try walking backwards with that train!' chortled Charlotte. Penelope uttered a tinkling little laugh, shaking her head at the impossibility of Imogen performing such a feat.
'Oh, I am sure you will manage it, given time and plenty of practice,' put in Lady Verity kindly.
Penelope made a noise which expressed her extreme doubt. They all knew Imogen could not survive half an hour in a ballroom without tearing her gown. How on earth was she going to cope with all the rigmarole of a court presentation? Sidling through doorways with panniers strapped to her hips, backing away from the royal presence with yards and yards of lace train just waiting to trip her up?
Imogen was still managing to hang onto her composure, when Penelope brought up the subject of her headdress.
'Have you practised getting into a carriage yet?' she asked, all feigned solicitude. 'I presume you have bought your feathers. Or at least' she paused, laying a hand on her arm, obliging Imogen to come to a complete stand still 'you do know how tall they usually are?'
And that had been the moment when disaster struck. Irritated by Penelope's patronizing attitude, Imogen had swung round, replying, 'Of course I do!'
Charlotte had let go of her arm, and naturally, Imogen had taken the opportunity to demonstrate exactly how tall those infernal plumes were.
'They are this high!' she said, waving her free arm in a wide arc above her head.
And her hand had connected with some thing solid. A man's voice had uttered a word she was certain she was not supposed to have understood. She had whirled round, and been horrified to discover that the solid object which her hand had struck had been a glass of champagne, held in the hand of a man just emerging from the refreshment room. All the champagne had sprayed out of the glass, and was now dripping down the front of an intricately tied cravat, onto a beautifully embroidered, green silk waistcoat.
'Oh! I am so sorry!' she had wailed, delving into her reticule for a handkerchief. 'I have ruined your waistcoat!' It really was a shame. That waistcoat was very nearly a work of art. Even the stitching around the button holes had been contrived so that the buttons resembled jewelled fruit peeping out from lush foliage.
She pulled out a square of plain muslinhighly absorbent and just the ticket for blotting up the worst of the spill. So long as not too much soaked into the gorgeous silk, his valet would be bound to know of some remedy to rescue it. Why, Pansy could make the most obdurate stains disappear from even the most delicate of fabrics!
But her hand never reached its intended target. The gentleman in the green waist coat grabbed her wrist and snarled, 'Do not presume to touch my person.'
Stunned by the venomous tone of his voice, she looked up, to encounter a glare from a pair of eyes as green as the jewels adorning his waist coat. And justshe swallowedas hard.
It was only the hardness of those eyes, and perhaps the cleft in his chin, that prevented her from immediately applying the word beautiful to the angry gentleman. She took in the regular, finely chiselled features of his face, the fair hair cut in the rather severe style known as the Brutus, the perfect fit of his bottle-green tailcoat, and the immaculately manicured nails of the hand that held her wrist in a bruisingly firm grip. And all the breath left her lungs in one long, shuddering sigh. She had heard people say that some thing had taken their breath away, but this was the first time it had ever happened to her.
But then she had never been so close to such a breathtakingly gorgeous specimen of masculinity before.
She pulled herself together with an effort. It was no use standing there, sighing at all that masculine beauty. A man who took such pains over his appearance was the very worst sort of gentleman to have spilled a drink over! Determined to make some form of reparation for her clumsiness, Imogen feebly twitched the handkerchief she was still clutching in fingers that were beginning to go numb.
'I only m-meant' she began, but he would not let her finish.
'I know what you meant,' he sneered.
Ever since he had arrived in town, match-making mamas had been irritating him by thrusting their daughters under his nose. But worse, far worse, were the antics of enterprising girls like this one. It was getting so that he could not even take a walk in the park without some female tripping over an imaginary obstacle and stumbling artistically into his arms.
By the looks of her, she was yet another one of those girls from a shabby-genteel background, out to snare a wealthy husband who could set her up in style. Definitely not a pampered lady who had never done anything more strenuous than sew a seam. He could feel the strength in her wrist, as he held her determined little fingers away from their target.
It never ceased to amaze him that girls could think that running their hands over him would somehow make a favourable impression. Only two nights earlier, he had been disgusted by the apparently prim young miss who was seated next to him at dinner running her hand along his thigh under cover of the table cloth. Just as this hoyden was at tempting to run her hands over his torso, under cover of mopping up the drink she had thrown over him.
He glared down into her wide grey eyes, eyes which told him exactly what she was thinking. They were growing darker by the second. And her lips were still parted from that shuddering sigh.
To his shock, he experienced a reckless urge to yank her closer and give her the kiss those parted lips were begging him for.
Instead, he flung her from him. 'I am sick to death of the lengths your kind will go to in order to attract my notice.' And sickened to find that, in spite of his better judgement, his body was responding to this girl's far-from-subtle approach.
'My kind of attract your what?' she sputtered.
'Do not think to dupe me by a display of outraged innocence, miss. And do not presume to approach me again. If you were a person worthy of notice, you would have been able to find a more orthodox way of effecting an introduction and making me aware of your charms.'
Imogen stood, open-mouthed, while those hard green eyes raked her quivering form from top to toe with such insolence she felt as though he might just as well have stripped her naked.
'Such as they are,' he finished, with a sneer that left her in no doubt of his low opinion of her.
'Well!' she huffed.
One of his companions raised a lavender-scented handkerchief to his lips to conceal his smirk as the green-eyed exquisite turned and stalked away. The others sniggered openly.
Penelope and Charlotte flicked open their fans and raised them to their faces, but not before Imogen caught a glimpse of a pair of smiles that put her in mind of a cat that has a live bird under one paw.
'Oh, dear,' said Lady Verity, a frown creasing her normally placid brow as her friends turned their backs on Imogen and sauntered away, their noses in the air. 'How unfortunate. He seemed to think '
'Yes, he made it quite plain what he thought. Odious man! Who does he think he is?'
'I have no idea, but he seems to be someone of consequence '
'Someone who thinks a great deal of his own consequence, you mean,' Imogen muttered darkly, taking in the arrogant set of the blond man's shoulders as he strode towards the exit. 'How dare he talk to me like that!'
Lady Verity was beginning to look perturbed. And Imogen realized she was clenching her fists and breathing heavily and, worst of all, scowling. All three things a lady should never do. Particularly not in a ballroom.
Oh, heavens, she thought, swinging to look towards the chaperon's bench, where her aunt was sitting, monitoring her every move.
She took a deep breath, smiled grimly at Lady Verity and said, 'I think I had better go and rejoin Lady Callandar.'
Lady Verity dipped a curtsy and went off after her friends, while Imogen braced herself to face her aunt's exasperated brand of censure.