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Lady Odelia Pencully's birthday ball was the event of the Seasoneven though the Season had not yet begun. Not to have been invited was a cause for deep social embarrassment. To have been invited and not attend was unthinkable.
Either by blood or by birth, Lady Pencully was related to half the most powerful and wealthy families in England. The daughter of a duke and a countess by marriage, she was a pillar of Society, and it was rare that anyone dared cross her. During her heyday, she had ruled over the ton as she did her family, with an acid tongue and an iron will, and even though she had, with age, remained more and more at her country estate, rarely coming to London even for the Season, she was still a force to be reckoned with. A prodigious correspondent, she kept up to date with the latest scandals and news, and was never averse to dashing off a note to anyone whom she felt needed the benefit of her advice.
So this year, when she announced that she would celebrate her eighty-fifth year of life with a grand ball, it immediately became the one event that no one of any social standing or pretenses thereof could risk missing, even if it was in London in January, the most unfashionable and difficult time of the year. Neither snow nor cold nor the difficulties of opening up a town house for a brief visit could hold back the ladies of the ton, who comforted themselves with the fact that at least it would not be true, as it usually was in January, that no one would be in town, since everyone who mattered would be coming to Lady Odelia's party.
Among those who drove into London from their country estates was the Duke of Rochford, along with his sister, Lady Calandra, and their grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Rochford. The duke, one of the rare few who would have dared to refuse Lady Odelia, had been disinclined to do so. He was, after all, her great-nephew, and he was a man who believed in carrying out his family responsibilities. Besides, there was business he needed to attend to in London.
The dowager duchess had come because, while she had never really liked her late husband's older sister, Lady Pencully was one of the few people left of their generationthough, the duchess was careful to point out, Lady Pencully was a number of years older than sheand was, moreover, one of the even fewer number of women whom the duchess considered of equal standing. Lady Odelia was, quite simply, one of the duchess's set, despite Odelia's sometimes rather shocking lack of manners.
Of the three in the carriage waiting in the long line of carriages creeping along Cavendish Crescent toward Lady Pencully's door, only the youngest, Lady Calandra, was looking forward with eagerness to the evening.
At twenty-three years of age, Callie, as she was known to those close to her, had been out for five years, so a London ball, especially one given by an octogenarian relative, would not normally have been cause for excitement. However, she had just spent several long months at the Lilles family country estate, Marcastle, months made even longer and drearier by an inordinate number of drab rainy days and the constant presence of her grandmother.
In the usual way of things, her grandmother was accustomed to residing a good part of the year in her home in Bath, happily reigning over the slow and genteel social scene of that community, and only occasionally, particularly during the Season, coming up to London to make sure that her granddaughter was conducting herself properly.
However, at the end of the last Season, the dowager duchess had decided that it was well past time for Lady Calandra to be married, and she had taken it as her primary occupation to get the girl engagedto the proper sort of gentleman, of course. To that end, she had sacrificed her usual winter course in Bath for the cold drafts of the historic family estate in Norfolk.
Callie, therefore, had spent the last few months cooped up by the inclement weather, listening to the old lady's strictures on her behavior, admonitions of her duty to marry, and opinions regarding the suitability of the various peers of the realm.
As a result, the prospect of a real ball, with dancing, friends, gossip and music, set her stomach fluttering in anticipation. To make it even more interesting in Callie's opinion, Lady Odelia's party was a masquerade ball. This fact had not only allowed Callie the added fun of devising a costume, it also provided the evening with an intriguing air of mystery.
She had, after much careful consideration and consultation with her seamstress, settled on the guise of a woman of the reign of Henry VIII. Not only did the close-fitting Tudor cap look quite fetching on her, but the deep crimson color of the gown was a perfect foil for her black curls and fair skinand a welcome change from the usual white to which an unmarried young woman such as herself was limited.
Callie glanced across the carriage at her brother. Rochford, naturally, had eschewed any disguise, wearing his usual elegant black evening suit and white shirt, with a crisp, perfectly tied white cravat, his only concession to the evening a black half mask worn across his eyes. With his dark good looks, of course, he still looked sufficiently romantic and faintly sinister enough to have most of the ladies at the ball gazing in his direction and sighing.
He caught Callie's glance and smiled affectionately at her. "Happy at the thought of dancing again, Callie?"
She smiled back at him. Others might find her older brother a trifle distant and cool, even forbidding, but she knew that he was not at all cold. He was merely reserved and rather slow to warm to people. Callie understood his manner; she, too, had learned that when one was a duke, or even a duke's sister, any number of people wanted to ingratiate themselves with one not for friendship, but for the social and monetary benefits they hoped to receive. She suspected that Sinclair had had even more bitter experience with this phenomenon than she, for he had come into his title and wealth at a young age, and had not had the protection and guidance of an older brother.
Their father had died when Callie was only five, and their mother, a sweet woman with a perpetual air of sadness, had gone to her grave nine years later, still mourning their father. Her brother was Callie's only real family, except, of course, for her grandmother. Sinclair, fifteen years older than Callie, had assumed the role of guardian as well as brother, and as a result, he had been more like a young, indulgent father to her than a brother. She suspected that one of the reasons he had been willing to come to London for their great-aunt's party had been because he knew how much she herself would enjoy it.
"Indeed, I am looking forward to it," she answered him now. "I don't believe that I have danced since Irene and Gideon's wedding."
It was well known among Lady Calandra's family and friends that she was an active sort, preferring a ride or a brisk walk through the country to sitting with her needlework beside the fire, and even by the end of the Season, she never tired of dancing.
"There was Christmas," the duke pointed out, a twinkle in his eye.
Callie rolled her eyes. "Dancing with one's brother while Grandmother's companion plays the piano does not count."
"It has been a dull winter," Rochford admitted. "We shall go to Dancy Park soon, I promise."
Callie smiled. "It will be wonderful to see Constance and Dominic again. Her letters have been brimming over with happiness, now that she is in the family way."
"Really, Calandra, that is hardly the sort of thing one mentions to a gentleman," the duchess commented.
"It's only Sinclair," Callie pointed out mildly, suppressing a sigh. She was well-used to her grandmother's strict views of appropriate behavior, and she did her best not to offend the woman, but after three months of the duchess's lectures, Callie's nerves were beginning to wear thin.
"Yes," Rochford agreed with a grin for his sister. "It is only I, and I am well aware of Callie's scapegrace ways."
"It is all very well for you to laugh," his grandmother retorted. "But a lady of Callie's station must always act with the greatest discretion. Especially one who is not yet married. A gentleman does not choose a bride who does not conduct herself appropriately."
Rochford's face assumed that expression of cool hauteur that Callie referred to as his "duke's face" as he said, "There is a gentleman who would dare to presume to call Calandra indiscreet?"
"Of course not," the duchess replied quickly. "But when one is seeking a husband, one must be especially careful about everything one says or does."
"Are you seeking a husband, Callie?" Rochford asked now, turning to his sister with a quizzical glance. "I was not aware."
"No, I am not," Callie told him flatly.
"Of course you are," her grandmother contradicted. "An unmarried woman is always seeking a husband, whether she admits to it or not. You are no longer a young girl in her first Season, my dear. You are twenty-three, and nearly every girl who made her come-out the same season as you has gotten engagedeven that moon-faced daughter of Lord Thripp's."
"To an 'Irish earl with more horses than prospects'?" Callie asked. "That is what you called him last week."
"Of course I would expect a far better husband than that for you," her grandmother retorted. "But it is vexing beyond belief that that chit should have become engaged before you."
"Callie has plenty of time for finding a husband," Rochford told his grandmother carelessly. "And I can assure you that there are any number of men who would ask me for her hand if they had the slightest encouragement."
"Which, I might point out, you never give anyone," the duchess put in tartly.
The duke's eyebrows sailed upward. "Surely, Grandmother, you would not have me allow roués and fortune hunters to court Calandra."
"Of course not. Pray do not act obtuse." The dowager countess was one of the few who did not stand in awe of Rochford, and she rarely hesitated to give him her opinion. "I am merely saying that everyone knows that should they show an interest in your sister, they are likely to receive a visit from you. And very few men are eager to confront you."
"I had not realized that I was so fearsome," Rochford said mildly. "However that may be, I fail to see why Callie would be interested in any man who was not willing to face an interview with me in order to pay suit to her." He turned to Callie. "Are you interested in any particular gentleman?"
Callie shook her head. "No. I am quite happy as I am."
"You will not always remain the most sought-after young woman in London," her grandmother warned.
"Then she should enjoy it now," Rochford stated, effectively ending the conversation.
Grateful for her brother's intervention, Callie turned her attention to the window, peeking past the curtain at the carriages disgorging passengers before them. It was not, however, quite as easy to ignore her grandmother's words.
Callie had spoken the truth: she was largely content just as she was. She enjoyed the social whirl of London during the spring and summer monthsthe dancing, the plays, the operaand during the rest of the year she could also keep herself well-occupied. She had friends she could visit. She had grown especially close, over the last few months, to Constance, the new wife of the Viscount Leighton, and when the duke was at Dancy Park, Callie spent a great deal of time with her, for Redfields, Dominic and Constance's home, was only a few miles from Dancy Park. The duke had a number of other residences which he periodically visited, and Callie often went with him. She was rarely bored, for she enjoyed riding and long walks in the country, and she did not disdain the company of the local folk or the servants. She had been almost entirely in charge of the duke's household since she was fifteen, so there were always things to do.
Still, she knew that her grandmother was right. The time was approaching when she would need to marry. In two more years she would be twenty-five, and most girls were wed by then. If she remained single after that, she would soon be regarded as a spinster, which was not, she knew, a particularly pleasant position to occupy.
It was not that Callie had anything against marriage. She was not like her friend Irene, who had always declared that she would never weda conviction that she had recently given up when she met Lord Rad-bourne. No, Callie expected to marry. She wanted a husband and children and a house of her own.
The problem was, she had never found anyone whom she wanted to marry. Oh, there had been a time or two when she had fallen into an infatuation, when a man's smile had made her heart flutter, or a set of broad shoulders in a Hussar's uniform had increased her pulse. But those had always been fleeting things, soon over, and she had yet to meet a man whom she thought she could be happy to see over the breakfast table every morninglet alone give herself up to in hte vague, darkly fascinating and slightly frightening rites of the marital bed.