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London, England, March 1815
While the limits of human ability prevented Griffith, Duke of Riverton, from being everything to everyone who depended on him for their livelihoods, he'd always assumed there was no limit to what he would do for his family.
His mother's current request was more than stretching those limits. "No."
"Miss Watters is a very particular friend of Lady Cressida. And as I am married to her father I feel obliged to ensure Cressida's ball is a success in every way." Griffith's mother, Lady Blackstone, arched a brow in her son's direction as he turned from his perusal of the crowd filling the ballroom. The former duchess may have voluntarily lowered her rank to countess when she remarried a few years earlier, but she had never released her position as matriarch of her family, despite the fact that they'd all reached adulthood.
It was a position Griffith respected. Not only did the Word of God command that he do so, but he'd seen what his mother had gone through to raise her four children, including teaching her ten-year-old son how to manage a dukedom. That respect did not, however, extend to breaking one of his personal social rules.
He looked away from his mother to note the girl in question — a plain young woman hovering near a doorway, her dress an unfortunate color that was remarkably similar to the ballroom wallpaper. Given her supposedly close relationship with tonight's hostess, one would have thought the near-professional wallflower would have known to avoid that particular shade of rose. "If there is a true need for a member of our family to rescue Miss Watters from the wall — a position which I'm sure you know she takes up at every social gathering — there are other male members you can appeal to."
Mother's lips pressed together into a thin line. "They are married."
Griffith slowly lifted his own eyebrow in a perfect imitation of his mother's earlier expression. "I had no idea the institution affected a man's ability to dance. No matter. Up to now they've shown remarkable resistance to whatever marriage-related malady might inhibit a man's dancing talents. I'm sure they can hold it off for another night."
His mother said nothing, though he could tell from the crinkles forming at the corner of her eye that she wanted to laugh. Almost as much as she wanted him to dance with Miss Watters. As he only danced with women he considered family, her laughter was the only desire he was inclined to grant. One more sardonic remark from him should send her over the edge.
"It is a comfort to know, however, that public scrutiny of my lack of dancing finesse will diminish once I've married. Until then I shall endeavor to plant myself among the married men on the rare occasion that I join a dancing formation with a sister or cousin. Perhaps then we shall all be equally bumblesome."
A brief snicker sputtered between Mother's lips. Her rare break in decorum was like a trophy to the one who'd done everything in his power to make his mother smile again after the death of his father. As always, though, she quickly contained the outward signs of her mirth. "Bumblesome?"
Griffith shrugged his shoulders. Their massive width, when combined with his considerable height, was one of the main reasons he didn't perform at his best on a crowded dance floor. He was simply too large to maneuver through the steps with much grace, and bumblesome seemed the most accurate description of how he felt on the dance floor.
She sighed. "Very well, I shall ask your brother. Despite his marriage last year, he is still popular enough to draw notice."
"And accomplished enough for the lady to actually enjoy her dance. If she is only to get one turn around the floor, let it be a good one."
Cool daggers shot from his mother's blue eyes as she glided off to find Griffith's younger brother, Trent. He could have told Mother that she was going in the wrong direction, but as his primary objective was to remove her from his side, he kept his silence. By his count, he had to stay in the ballroom for two more dances before his absence wouldn't draw comment. Over the years he'd perfected the art of being seen enough that everyone knew he'd attended but not so much that he was drawn into any interactions he'd rather avoid.
Such as dancing with a female who might even remotely be considered a marriage possibility.
"You can't avoid it forever, you know."
Griffith glanced to his left to find his good friend Ryland, Duke of Marshington. Their friendship had started at Eton, holding fast through years of change and upheaval. Now that the man had married Griffith's sister Miranda, they were family as well. "You do."
Ryland grinned, the slash of white teeth standing out against his darker-than-was-fashionable skin. "I'm married."
With a tilt of his head, Griffith acknowledged the implications of Ryland's true statement. "And where is my sister?" The grin widened. "Dancing."
Griffith swung his gaze to the rows of couples weaving in and out of formation on the dance floor. He could easily see over the surrounding heads, though sometimes his sister's shorter stature still made her difficult to find. Within moments he'd located the familiar blond curls of the elder of his younger sisters. At that moment she was happily spinning around on the arm of Colin McCrae, Griffith's other brother-in-law. His youngest sister, Georgina, stood next to them, waiting for her turn in the dance.
It was still a surprise to see the sisters voluntarily sharing space. The friendliness had only come about in the two years since they'd married their respective husbands. Those marriages had taken a great load off of Griffith's mind. In truth, now that Trent had also settled happily into an initially awkward marriage, there wasn't anyone left for Griffith to guide and watch over. There hadn't been for many months now, but Griffith had put off acknowledging the fact.
"You really should consider taking a turn or two yourself, you know." Ryland rocked forward on his toes and clasped his hands behind his back. Given that the man was a former spy and a master at blending in, the falsely innocent posture was obviously intentional.
Griffith knew better than to take the bait. "I shall ask Miranda for the next set."
"She'll turn you down."
Two years of marriage had obviously not made the man an expert on his wife. Miranda would never deny her big brother. "She never has before."
"She wasn't limiting her exertions before."
The two men fell silent as Griffith considered the implications of Ryland's statement. Happiness and worry warred within Griffith. It was difficult for him to remember that Miranda was not his to protect anymore. "I suppose congratulations are in order."
"Indeed they are." Ryland nodded, one side of his mouth kicked up in a smirk. "We've a dukedom to provide an heir for, after all." Grey eyes cut from the dancers to pin Griffith to the wall behind him. "You have one as well."
Griffith didn't want to think about it. He didn't know if it was the fact that his childhood had been cut so short or the fear of having something so vulnerable dependent on him, but the idea of children frightened Griffith like nothing else. It was, however, part of his duty, and Griffith took his duty very seriously. His younger brother would certainly breathe easier when it was ensured that the title and holdings wouldn't pass to him. Griffith had never understood Trent's aversion to the title, except, of course, for the fact that Griffith would have to be dead in order for Trent to inherit.
That was a fairly decent reason not to want the title.
He looked to Ryland. "I've a plan."
"You always do." The last strains of the dance faded into the chatter of the ball's attendees, and the couples dispersed while new ones took their places. By unspoken agreement the men waited for the music to drift back over the crowd before speaking again.
Ryland inspected his fingernails. "Dare I ask what this great marriage plan consists of?"
"Getting married." Griffith had been formulating a plan for years. When he'd first hit London after graduating from Oxford, he'd marveled at the games society played. The scheming marriage-minded mothers and the calculating influence-craving fathers made a powerful counterforce to the desperate dowry-hungry sons and the fun-loving, attachment-avoiding bachelors. Somewhere in the middle, the debutantes drifted — each with their own level of mercenariness, but all with the same goal in mind. Griffith hadn't wanted to deal with any of them.
Still didn't want to deal with them.
His reprieve was fast disappearing, though, because Ryland had a point. Griffith needed an heir, and for that he needed a wife.
"Do you intend to follow the family tradition?"
Surprise at the question broke Griffith's normally controlled countenance. "Of course."
All of Griffith's family, for as long as anyone could remember, had built their marriages on a strong foundation of love. His own parents had been possibly the most notorious of the lot. Just because Griffith was approaching marriage in a logical manner did not mean he had no plans to involve love in the equation.
The skeptical smile on Ryland's face brought an extra stiffness to Griffith's back. His plan was going to work. Watching his mother and siblings find love over the past three years had only assured him that his plan was a viable one, and he couldn't resist the urge to rub it in Ryland's face, given the other man's chaotic journey to happiness. "Before my mother tried to steer me in an unsuitable direction tonight, I was narrowing down the candidates."
Ryland coughed. "Candidates? And I can't imagine your mother suggesting you socialize with anyone unsuitable."
"My idea of suitable and hers do not always align."
"Particularly since you've never seen fit to share your idea." Ryland straightened his shoulders and settled in to observe the room. He was tall, but still a good two or three inches shorter than Griffith, and possessed the ability to look like something other than a hulking mountain with legs. That didn't mean he couldn't be intimidating if he wanted to. His face hardened from easy humor into serious concentration. "Your target is in this room, I assume, for you to have been contemplating a campaign."
Griffith resisted the childish urge to roll his eyes toward the ceiling. "Target? Really, Ryland. We're not stepping outside for pistols."
"You called them candidates. I'm simply upgrading your status from prize to be won to the pursuer in control. Now, be quiet. I'm analyzing."
Griffith waited. He leaned his shoulder against the wall behind him and crossed one foot over the other. Sweat trickled down his neck into his cravat. He hated ballrooms. They were always too crowded and too hot for a man of his size and stature to retain any sort of comfort. Normally he positioned himself near the terrace doors or an open window, but the unseasonably cold weather had prompted tonight's host to close everything up tight. Right then Griffith would have welcomed a chilly breeze. Waiting for Ryland to make his guess wasn't doing anything to relieve his tension.
Minutes passed. Another song began and ended. Was Ryland still analyzing, or was he simply torturing Griffith now?
"You want someone from the edge of the dance floor."
Griffith had to admire the confidence of the man's statement. Despite the accuracy of the remark, Griffith wasn't willing to give in that easily. "You had a one-in-four chance of selecting the correct group of ladies. And as it is by far the largest of the groups, I'm hardly impressed."
When the two men had attended their first balls right after graduating from Eton, they'd divided the unmarried women into four groups. The corner held the spinsters, while the walls included those whose social standing or lack of popularity kept them outside the action. The dance floor was for the most popular of women — Diamonds of the First Water, the Incomparables, the ones on whom everyone doted and who never seemed to be without a partner or two clamoring for the next dance. The edge of the dance floor, though, held most of the women. The women who danced sometimes but not always. They were popular enough but hardly fodder for the social pages.
Ryland cast a glance over his shoulder. "Anyone else in here — your own family included — would assume you wanted someone from the dance floor. You could certainly land one, if you wished. Even the lovely Lady Alethea."
He could probably land anyone in this room, even if they were nearly betrothed. Young, single dukes weren't exactly plentiful in England. Griffith had to concede Ryland's point, however, and inclined his head to indicate his friend should continue his guess.
It was easy to spot the woman he'd mentioned. Lady Alethea was skipping her way through the dance with a wide smile on her face and strings of jewels in her dark hair.
It was also easy to see why most people, his family included, would assume he wanted someone like her. Everyone thought her the most sought-after woman among the marriage-minded aristocracy. Griffith's interests lay beyond the benefits of a beautiful wife, though.
Ryland tilted his head and looked slowly around the ballroom, murmuring to himself. "She's too attractive. Draws too much notice. Good family, but maybe a few too many of them. You don't want them asking you for favors."
Griffith forced himself not to fidget. It was remarkable how quickly Ryland was walking the lines of Griffith's reasoning.
"She's too new to London. You probably spent all of last year debating the merits of various ladies."
"Not all of it," Griffith grumbled. "I had to watch over the disastrous beginnings of Trent's marriage, after all." Fortunately, that had all worked out and Trent was now fully in love with his wife, but it had taken up a good bit of Griffith's attention last Season.
Fewer than five more minutes went by before Ryland turned around and crossed his arms. "You're not going to fall in love with her."
Griffith raised an eyebrow and lowered his head until he was glaring down his nose at Ryland. The superior look that had sent more than one man into a cold sweat didn't even make Ryland blink. "How do you know?"
"The same way I know whom you've chosen. I get the logic — really, I do — but she's not what you need."
The noise of the crowd ebbed and swelled around them as Griffith narrowed his eyes at the other duke. "You're bluffing," he finally said. "You want me to say the woman I've settled on because you don't know who it is."
"Oh, I know. But mark my words — she's not the woman for you. You don't need someone as boring as you think you are. And trust me, old friend, she will bore you."
Miranda chose that moment to come bounding to her husband's side, wide smile and flushed cheeks indicating how much she'd enjoyed her set of dances.
Griffith nodded to his sister, marveling, as he often did, that the same shade of blond hair and green eyes that he saw in the mirror each morning looked so different in a feminine face. "I hear congratulations are in order."
She frowned at her husband. "This is a terrible time for you to suddenly become incapable of keeping a secret."
"Revealing my potential heir was a strategic move, I assure you." Ryland took his wife's hand and looped it through his elbow, pulling her closer against his side.
Her smile returned. "Oh, really?"
Griffith wanted to groan, but that would have given Miranda too much satisfaction. A man of eight and twenty should not feel the need to squirm when his little sister stared at him, even if her expression held the intensity of every headmaster he'd ever had, combined.
"Pray tell, then, who were we discussing when I arrived?" Miranda bounced on her toes in anticipation.
It didn't matter now whether Ryland pulled the right name out of the crowd. Whomever he mentioned would become Miranda's new best friend as she did everything in her power to help him marry the woman she thought he wanted. There would be no stopping her.
Ryland grinned as he joined Miranda in staring Griffith's direction. "Miss Frederica St. Claire."
Excerpted from "An Inconvenient Beauty"
Copyright © 2017 Kristi Ann Hunter.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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