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No one would have guessed from the way Lady Fran-cesca Haughston moved through the Whittington ballroom that she was making the opening moves of her campaign. She strolled along in her usual manner, pausing to compliment a dress here or flirt with one of her many admirers there. She smiled and talked and plied her fan deftly, a vision in ice-blue silk, her blond hair falling in a cascade of curls from an upswept knot. But all the while, her dark blue eyes were looking for her prey.
It had been almost a month since she had vowed to herself to find a wife for the Duke of Rochford, and tonight she intended to set her plan in motion. She had made all her preparations. She had studied the young unmarried women of the ton, and through careful research and observation, she had managed to whittle the number down to just three whom she felt suitable for Sinclair.
All three of the young ladies would be here this evening, she was certain. The Whittington ball was one of the highlights of the Season, and, short of dire illness, any marriageable young lady would attend. Moreover, the odds were that the duke would be there, as well, which meant that Francesca could set her scheme in motion. It was time she began, she knew—past time. She had not really needed three weeks to sort out the possible brides for Rochford. There was only a rather small number of girls who could qualify to become his duchess.
But for some reason, ever since Callie's wedding, Francesca had been beset by ennui, curiously reluctant to pay calls or attend parties or the theater. Even her good friend Sir Lucien had commented on her sudden preference for staying at home. She was not sure of the reason for it; everything just suddenly seemed dull and scarcely worth the effort. She had felt, in fact, a trifle blue-deviled—a result, she had decided, of the fact that Callie, who had been living with Francesca while they sorted out a husband for her, was now married and gone. Without Callie's cheerful voice and fetching smile, Francesca's house was too empty.
Still, she reminded herself, she had vowed to make up for the wrong she had done to Callie's brother, Sinclair, fifteen long years ago. It was impossible to right matters, of course, but she could at least do the duke the favor of finding him a suitable bride. It was, after all, the thing at which she was most skilled. So she had come to this party tonight determined to begin the long dance of courtship on his behalf.
She strolled along the perimeter of the grand ballroom, a huge affair painted all in white and gold, floored with oak planks the color of honey, and lit by three glittering cascades of crystal chandeliers. Several gold stands of thick white beeswax candles provided more light, as did the gold-and-white sconces along the walls. All this brilliance was softened by the huge bouquets of crimson roses and peonies standing in vases against the walls, and twining in garlands up the banister of the magnificent staircase to the second floor. It was an elegant room, worthy of a palace, and it was rumored that only the formal ballroom made Lady Whittington willing to remain in this enormous and antiquated old mansion situated unfashionably outside Mayfair.
Francesca threaded through the crowd to the staircase, intending to use the vantage point of the second-floor railing to locate the young women she was seeking in the massive ballroom below. It was fitting, she thought, as she began to climb the curving stairs, that she should begin her campaign at the Whittingtons' ball. It had been here, after all, that she had ended things with the Duke of Rochford fifteen years ago. It had been here that her world had come crashing down.
The flowers had all been white that night, she remembered, masses of roses, peonies, camellias and sweet-scented gardenias, accented by glossy greenery trailing from the high vases. It had been a night of heady triumph for Francesca—she had made her debut only weeks before, and she was the undisputed Beauty of the Season. Men had flocked around her, flirting and begging for a dance, making extravagant declarations of love and paying flowery compliments. And all the while she had hugged her secret to herself, giddy with love and excitement—until the footman had slipped a note into her hand.
Now Francesca reached the second floor and took her place at the railing, where she could gaze down at the swirling dancers below. Things were much the same, she thought, as they had been that night so long ago. The dresses had been different, of course, the colors of the walls and the decorations changed. But the glamour, the excitement, the hopes and intrigues, had not altered. Francesca gazed out at the crowd without really seeing them, remembering instead the past.
"Is the party so grim?" a light, familiar voice said at her side.
Francesca turned and smiled at the blond woman. "Irene. How good to see you."
Lady Irene Radbourne was a striking woman with thick, curling blond hair and unusual golden eyes. At twenty-seven years old, she had been a spinster—and determined to remain one—until last autumn, when Francesca, searching for a suitable spouse for the Earl of Radbourne, had realized that Irene was the perfect match for him. The two women had spent their lives in much the same circle, so she had known the blunt, opinionated Lady Irene for years, but the two of them had not been friends until they had spent two weeks together at the Radbourne estate as Francesca sought to match the rough Lord Gideon to a well-bred wife. Now Francesca counted Irene as one of her closest friends.
Irene looked out over the multicolored crowd of dancers. "Is the new crop of marriageable young ladies so dismal?"
Francesca shrugged. Though she and Irene had maintained a genteel silence regarding the matter, Francesca suspected Irene had guessed that her matchmaking efforts were more a question of survival than amusement.
"Indeed, I have not really given them much attention. I have been quite lazy since Callie's wedding, I fear."
Irene regarded her shrewdly. "You are distressed, are you not? Is there aught that I can do?"
Francesca shook her head. "'Tis nothing, really. I am just remembering…a time long past. Another party here." She forced a smile, the charming dimple in her cheek appearing. "Where is Lord Gideon?"
In the six months the couple had been married, it was rare to see Irene without Gideon by her side. The pair had suited each other even better than Francesca had guessed; it seemed as if their love grew with each passing day.
Irene let out a little giggle. "He was waylaid by his great-aunt as we came in."
"Lady Odelia?" Francesca asked, appalled. "Good Gad, is she here?" She glanced around apprehensively.
"We are safe here," Irene assured her. "I do not think she will climb the stairs. That is why I fled to the balcony as soon as I stepped out of the cloakroom and saw that she had cornered Gideon."
"And left him there?" Francesca asked, chuckling. "For shame, Lady Radbourne. What about your vows?"
"My wedding vows made no mention of Great-Aunt Odelia, I assure you," Irene retorted, grinning. "I did feel a twinge of guilt, but I reminded myself that Gideon is a strong man, feared by many."
"Even the bravest quail before Lady Odelia, however. I remember once when Rochford himself sneaked out the back door and went 'round to the stables when he saw her carriage out front, leaving my mother and me with his grandmother to face her."
Irene let out a burst of laughter. "I should like to have seen that. I shall have to tease him about that the next time we meet."
"How is the duke?" Francesca asked casually, not looking at Irene. "Have you seen him lately?"
Irene glanced at her. "A week or so ago. We went to the theater together. He and Gideon are now friends, as well as cousins. But surely you have seen Rochford, as well."
Francesca shrugged. "Only rarely since Callie's wedding. It was his sister who was my friend, really, not Rochford."
The truth was that Francesca had been avoiding the duke since his sister's wedding. The guilty knowledge of how she had wronged him had weighed on her, and every time she had run into him, she had been pierced with guilt anew. She knew that she should tell him what she had found out, that she should apologize for her actions. It was craven of her not to.
Yet she could not do it; her insides chilled whenever she thought of confessing and begging his pardon. They had at least achieved a kind of peace with each other after all these years. Not friendship, exactly, but something close to it. What if she told him and it brought back his anger? She deserved that anger, she supposed, but her stomach twisted at the idea. So she had taken to avoiding Rochford whenever possible, staying away from a party if she thought he would attend it, and when she did see him, taking care not to go near him. If they came face-to-face, as had happened once or twice, she had been stiff and awkward, escaping as soon as possible.
Of course, that must end if she was to have any success finding a wife for the man. She could scarcely bring him together with one of his prospective brides if she continued to avoid him.
"Callie told me that Rochford had been unfair to you," Irene began carefully.
"Unfair?" Francesca glanced at her, startled. "No. How was he unfair?"
"I know not," Irene admitted. "Something to do with Lord Bromwell courting Callie, I gathered."
"Oh, that." Francesca dismissed the idea with a flick of her hand. "The duke had reason to be concerned. Brom's sister had certainly poisoned him against Rochford, but…" She shrugged expressively. "There was little I could do once they fell in love, in any case, and Rochford realized it afterwards. I am not so tender a female as to wither under a rebuke."
Francesca glanced out again over the crowd, and Irene followed her gaze.
"Who do you seek?" Irene asked after a moment.
"What? Oh. No one."
Irene's eyebrows lifted. "You are most diligent in looking for no one."
Francesca had difficulty dissembling with Irene. Something about Irene's forthright manner seemed to call forth an equal candor in her. She hesitated now, then admitted, "I was hoping to see Lady Althea Robart."
"Althea?" Irene repeated in surprise. "Whatever for?"
Francesca could not help but chuckle. "You dislike the woman?"
Irene shrugged. "Dislike is too strong a word. She simply is not company I would choose to keep. Too high in the instep for me."
Francesca nodded. The lady did seem a bit stiff. But she was not sure that pride would necessarily be a detriment to a future duchess. "I do not know her well."
"Nor I," Irene agreed.
"What about Damaris Burke?"
"The daughter of Lord Burke?" Irene asked. "The diplomat?"
Francesca nodded. "Exactly."
Irene thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I cannot say, really. I have never moved in government circles."
"She seems quite pleasant."
"Smooth," Irene agreed. "What one would expect, I suppose, from a woman who holds diplomatic parties." She glanced at her friend curiously. "Why are you asking? Do not tell me they have asked your help in seeking a husband."
"No," Francesca told her quickly. "They have not. I was just… considering them."
"Ah, then it is a gentleman who has sought your help?" Irene guessed.
"Not really. I have been thinking. On my own, as it were."
"Now you have completely aroused my curiosity. You are matchmaking for someone who has not even asked you? Is this another wager with the duke?"
Francesca blushed. "Oh. No, nothing like that. I had thought—well, there was someone I wronged once, and I had been looking to make it up to him."
"By finding him a wife?" Irene asked. "There are a number of men who would not thank you for that favor. Who is the man?"
Francesca studied the woman next to her. Of all her friends, Irene knew the most about her. Though Francesca had never confided in her about her own past, Irene's father had been a friend of Francesca's late husband, so no doubt Irene suspected how little happiness Francesca had found in her marriage, and Fran-cesca had never felt it necessary to maintain a pretense to Irene that she had missed Andrew in the five years since his death. She had never told anyone about what had happened between her and Rochford so long ago, but she suddenly found herself wanting to confide in Irene.
"Is he the reason for your melancholy?" Irene persisted.
"I think that is caused by the rapid approach of my birthday," Francesca replied lightly, but then she sighed and said, "And a little by having hurt him when he did not deserve it. I am very sorry for what I did."
Irene frowned. "I cannot imagine that you could have done anything so terrible."
"I think he might differ with you," Francesca responded. She looked into her friend's eyes, warm with sympathy. "No one must know this—not even Lord Gideon, for he knows the man."
Irene's brows went up, and Francesca saw understanding dawn in the other woman's clear golden eyes. "The duke? You are talking about Rochford?"
Francesca sighed. "I should have known that you would guess. Yes, it is Rochford, but you must promise me that you will not tell anyone."