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London, May 1814
"Well , Mother, have you chosen a bride for me yet?" Lord Greystone surveyed the guests in the ballroom of his Hanover Square town house, already bored by the dull young misses who had been paraded before him by over-eager mothers.
"Greystone, it is simply appalling." Standing beside him, Mother waved her closed fan carelessly toward the throng of guests, many of whom were engaged in a lively country reel. "I cannot think of any of these silly gels becoming my daughter-in-law. If you married one of them, I should be forced to utterly forsake your company to avoid all that nonsensical chatter."
"If you fear you will be lonely, madam, perhaps you should consider hiring a new companion." He sent his parent a playful smirk, but failed to evoke even a hint of a smile from the poor dear. Although she would never admit it, Mother missed her former companion Miss Newfield since the young lady married Greystone's youngest brother.
"Nonsense." Mother inspected him up and down through her quizzing glass, then brushed invisible lint from his blue satin sleeve. "I shall find you a bride who can fill the duties of a companion for me, someone who understands her responsibilities to family and Society."
"Hmm." Greystone resisted the notion of his future wife suffering under Mother's domination, as Miss Newfield had. Perhaps after his marriage he should consider settling his parent in a dower residence. The house would be elegant and well staffed, of course, but at some distance from his other homes.
The thought stirred a strong measure of guilt in him. He and his two brothers owed everything to Mother. From the age of six, when his father's sudden death had vaulted him into the titular headship of the Greystone dynasty, he had followed her every teaching. She had made certain he and his brothers, especially Greystone, were well versed in their duties to king and country. Although they had often loathed her controlling hand, she had restored the family fortune Father had gambled away, making possible a future for each of them. A future she herself designed.
Tonight she had gone to great effort for his birthday, inviting numerous aristocratic families and their marriageable daughters, ordering the best cuisine and hiring a fine orchestra. To match her scarlet gown, she wore the exquisite ruby necklace that had been in his family for some two hundred years. It suited her so well, he decided she must have it even after he married, as a symbol of his gratitude for all she had done for the family.
Although he felt the utmost gratitude toward her, recently he had begun to chafe against her controls. All these years he had observed how she had ruled the family. But how did a husband and father manage his own house? His memories of Father offered no example, only horror and fear. What if he inherited the man's brutish ways? What if
"Are you listening to me?" Mother's sharp elbow cut into his biceps. He stifled a wince and clamped down on a cross retort. "What do you think of Lady Grandly's eldest gel?" She waved her fan toward the comely Miss Waddington.
"Hmm." Miss Waddington certainly possessed the appropriate breeding and character, but she stirred no feeling in him at all. Now that he had seriously begun his obligatory marital search, a new longing had started to stir within him. He wanted to experience genuine love, a deep emotion toward his wife, such as both of his brothers felt for their brides. A feeling so strong that it made each of them willing to risk everything to have the woman he loved.
Yet those other, darker thoughts always accompanied that sentiment. What if he had inherited his father's propensity for cruelty? For evil? For profligate living? With no paternal example how could he truly become the good man he longed to be in the sight of God? Often after a burst of anger over some offense, real or imagined, he pondered whether he was even fit for marriage and fatherhood. Perhaps his brother Richard should continue as his heir. The newly ordained minister possessed an agreeable, temperate disposition and would never knowingly cause harm to anyone. But then such a passive course would mean that Greystone was neglecting his responsibility, something he would never do. He must choose a bride, must beget an heir. If he was fortunate enough to love the lady, then all the better.
Best get on with it.
"Do excuse me, madam. I should see to my guests." He bowed to Mother.
"Just so." She waved him toward the wall of young ladies without partners.
Instead Greystone strode toward the door, determined to play a few hands of whist with his brother Edmond. Greystone would seek the newlywed's advice about choosing a bride.
When had Edmond realized no lady would do for him but Anna Newfield? How had he been certain of his feelings, despite the vast chasm between their social ranks? How had he developed the courage to defy Mother's control? Perhaps as an officer over His Majesty's Dragoons in America.
Neither Edmond nor Richard remembered their father, so Greystone doubted they would ever emulate his wicked ways. On the other hand, Greystone's memories, forged from infancy, often found their way to the forefront of his mind, especially when his own temper threatened to explode like cannon fire. Then he prayed desperately that he might maintain control, unlike those few times in his youth when he had wreaked havoc on innocents. That must never happen again. He must never be like Father.
Pausing in the doorway, he surveyed the card room for the familiar head of dark brown hair. But his eyes stopped instead at the sight of golden curls framing the most exquisite female countenance he had ever gazed upon. Oddly his heart seemed to hiccup in his chest, and he had to remind himself to breathe. Even from a distance of some five and twenty feet, even in the flickering candlelight, he could see the sparkle of her blue eyes and her flawless ivory complexion. A pert little nose sat over full pink lips that were quirked to the side, as though she was concentrating on which card to play. From her sudden smile and decisive play he surmised the young lady could be counted on to betray her hand, a charming trait that revealed a lack of cunning.
But who was she? As host he should have met every guest at the ballroom door. Perhaps she was a latecomer. He did not have to search far to find someone to present him to her. Mother's good friend Mrs. Parton sat across from the golden lady, and from their traded smiles, he assumed they were acquainted. If Mrs. Parton approved of the young lady, that was good enough for him. He made his way through the maze of populated tables toward his goal. With each step closer to her his pulse quickened.
Four sets of feminine eyes turned in his direction, but Mrs. Parton spoke first.
"Go away, Greystone. My partner and I are about to win this hand, and I forbid you to interrupt, even if it is your birthday."
Greystone laughed. "And a good evening to you, too, dear lady." He stopped by her chair and placed a kiss upon her plump cheek. Then he turned his attention to the other ladies. "I do hope you are having a pleasant time, Lady Blakemore, Miss Hart, and
?" He feigned innocent surprise, even as his pulse hammered wildly. "Forgive me, miss. Mrs. Parton, will you present me to this lovely young lady?"
"I will not." She waved him away. He gave her a charming grin as he had since boyhood, and she harrumphed. "You never did mind well, Greystone." Exhaling dramatically, she folded her hand of cards and placed them facedown. "Miss Gregory, may I present our host, Lord Greystone. Greystone, this is my new companion, Miss Gregory. She arrived in London just this afternoon."
"Charmed, Miss Gregory." To be sure, he was more than charmed. He was enchanted by those calm sapphire eyes. But while he kissed her hand, his mind scrambled and his pulse slowed. So this was Mrs. Parton's long-awaited companion, and doubtless a penniless lady, if her unadorned, ill-fitting brown dress was any indication. If he chose a bride who was anything less than a baron's daughter, Mother would be devastated.
"Lord Greystone." The lady's bright pink blush charmed him all the more. Every unmarried young lady blushed, but somehow Miss Gregory's deportment bespoke something deeper than girlish nerves. Curiosity and interest quickly overrode his reservations regarding her status.
"Well, Greystone." Lady Blakemore stood, as did her companion. "Since you have interrupted our game, Miss Hart and I will take our leave and find the refreshments." Amid protests to the contrary, the two ladies disappeared from the room.
"Do forgive me. I have spoiled your game." Greystone did not regret it for a moment. "Did you lose much?" He glanced around for a pile of coins or tokens but found none. Miss Gregory stared at him as if he had three heads.
"Gracious, no." Mrs. Parton waved a silk fan before her ruddy cheeks. "You know I never gamble. Not even a button. Dreadful habit. Leads to ruin."
Miss Gregory's cheeks flamed even brighter, causing Greystone no little concern.
"Again, forgive me. I do not mean to be boorish." He sat in one of the empty chairs, knowing full well he was neglecting his other guests. But surely after spoiling their game, he could be excused while he set things to right with these two ladies. Or so he convinced himself. "Tell me, Miss Gregory, where do you reside when not in London? Mrs. Parton has been foretelling your arrival for weeks, but she told us nothing about you."
"My origins are of no consequence, I assure you, sir." The young lady lifted her chin. Her eyes glinted, and her lips thinned into a line. So she had a bit of spunk. He liked that. Few young ladies of the gentry spoke so boldly to a peer of his standing.
"Now, my dear." Mrs. Parton reached across the table and patted her hand. "Greystone is a treasured friend. He can be trusted with your secret."
The young lady shifted her eyes this way and that, as if she would escape this interview. Greystone began to regret quizzing her, even as his interest in her increased, along with his curiosity and an odd pinch of protectiveness. "If you are in some sort of difficulty, Miss
" He could not imagine a problem Mrs. Parton's vast wealth could not solve.
Again Miss Gregory lifted her chin, and wounded pride beamed from her elegant countenance. "I am not a mere miss. I am Lady Beatrice Gregory. My brother is Lord Melton. Perhaps you know him?" One perfect blond eyebrow quirked upward to accompany the question, as if she already knew the answer.
Greystone tried to inhale, but like last winter's nearly fatal illness, this revelation stole his breath.
"Ah. Yes. Of course. I know Melton. He was absent from the House of Lords today. I do hope he is not ill." He must get away. Must not let her charm him further.
Disappointment clouded Mrs. Parton's eyes. How well she knew him. How well she was reading him even now. But she of all people understood why he could not associate himself with the sister of a drunken, degenerate gambler.
"If you ladies will excuse me. My other guests" He rose and offered a weak smile before turning to make his escape.
"Do forgive Lord Greystone." Mrs. Parton's round face creased with disappointment. "He truly must attend to his other guests. It is his birthday, you know."
"Yes, of course." Beatrice offered her employer a conciliatory smile, for her late mother had taught her well. No matter what happens, no matter what feelings rage within her, a lady always maintains her dignity. Mama had always exhibited graciousness despite Papa's neglect, and never had Beatrice felt the need to emulate her more than now. The instant she saw the horror on Lord Greystone's facea rapid withdrawal of interest at the mention of her brother's nameher breeding held strong. With a practiced vise grip on her emotions, she maintained her posture and poise, even offering a smile to the gentleman's retreating back. But her disappointment was keen, her heart deeply cut. Would all of Society treat her this way?
Yet what could she expect from any gentleman, especially an eligible peer? Did not all noblemen spend their lives and fortunes as it suited them? Did they not all sit in church every Sunday, as duty demanded, and yet utterly neglect their duty to their families?
But daughters also had a dutyto marry well so that the family might benefit. Beatrice had always assumed her parents would find a husband for her, preferably someone wealthy and titled who could give Papa some sort of political advantage. Mama had promised Beatrice a grand London Season during which they would arrange the marriage. But Mama had died long before she could keep her promise, Papa had died before finding her a husband, and her brother had spent the past three years gambling away the fortune that came with his title. Beatrice loved her charming brother, but the new Lord Melton's wastrel ways had utterly destroyed her chance for marriage or even a Season when he squandered her dowry in hopes of recouping his losses. No gentleman wanted a penniless lady, no matter how old or formerly prestigious her family name. Still, her sense of injustice cried out that any man who did not see how different she was from Melton did not deserve her notice or her heart.
Still again, from the moment she had observed Lord Greystone's tall form and handsome face as he had threaded his way across the room toward her table, she had experienced a growing sense of admiration, at least for his outward appearance. Broad shoulders, thick, nearly black hair curled in the latest Caesar style, a lightly tanned complexion, high cheekbones and a slight cleft in his strong chinfeatures woven together to create an appealing presence. No doubt the gentleman knew his blue satin jacket reflected in those icy blue eyes, making him all the more attractive.
But no one could feign the kindness that shone from his countenance as he had spoken with Beatrice's employer. This was the gentleman of whom Mrs. Parton had spoken so highly in regard to his defense of the poor. This was a gentleman of godly faith, a worthy soul who shared Beatrice's concern for the downtrodden. But somehow his generous feelings did not extend to the sister of a wastrel.
"Shall we go to the ballroom?" Mrs. Parton stood and fussed with her gown, a deep purple silk creation with an orange print sash draped across one shoulder and fastened at the high waist with a golden broach. Her purple turban, which kept falling over her ruddy forehead, sported a blue-green peacock feather that bobbed when she moved. "I shall find you a partner for the quadrille, which should be the next dance, unless Lady Greystone has changed her usual order." When Beatrice remained seated, the lady tilted her head in question. "Well, come along, my dear. We'll not have any fun hiding here among the dowdy dowagers." She waved a chubby arm to take in the rest of the room and received a few cross looks for it.