How to Entice an Earl
By Manda Collins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Manda Collins
All rights reserved.
"What about Lord Fortenbury?" Cecily, Duchess of Winterson, asked her cousin Lady Madeline Essex, her voice low so that the other attendees of the Wexford Ball wouldn't hear them.
As on so many previous occasions, Cecily, Maddie, and their cousin Juliet, now Lady Deveril, looked out at the dancers at a ton gathering without taking to the floor themselves. But this time it was from choice rather than a lack of partners — at least for the two married cousins. Both Cecily and Juliet had just released their husbands to find their way to the card room so that they could chat with Maddie, who had thus far been unable to remove herself from the ranks of the wallflowers.
It wasn't for want of a fashionable gown, she mused. The creation from Madame Celeste that she wore tonight might be a bit unusual, with its high waist and unembellished state, but there was no mistaking that the ocean-blue silk displayed her generous curves and ample bosom to advantage. And the color went well with her fair hair and coloring. It was a far cry from the sort of overembellished frocks and muted colors she'd worn at the beginning of the season. Although she'd never been one to mince words or back down from a challenge, her new wardrobe nevertheless gave Maddie a renewed sense of confidence when it came to the opposite sex. A confidence that would never allow her to grasp at the first gentleman who crossed her path.
"Lord Fortenbury is like a particularly eager puppy," she said, impatience furrowing her brow. "I like puppies, but I don't wish to be married to one."
Ever since her cousins had married, they had encouraged Maddie to make use of the dance card Cecily had "borrowed" from Miss Amelia Snowe, this season's unrivaled diamond. Shaped like a fan, the dance card's ivory petals marked with the penciled-in names of the ton's most eligible bachelors could be easily "adapted" to conform to each new entertainment. For both Cecily and Juliet, the card had proven to be a good-luck token as well as a means of meeting eligibles, for soon after they acquired it they had each found their husbands. And while she was pleased for her cousins, she did not feel quite ready to follow them into matrimony. She had things to accomplish before she allowed herself to become enthralled by a husband and family. Like finishing her novel.
"Have you even used the dance card?" Juliet demanded, her auburn brows furrowed with suspicion. "I haven't seen you dance above three times this week. And twice were with Deveril and Winterson so they don't even count."
"You might try the 'smile–bat–tilt' method," Cecily suggested, referring to Amelia's penciled mantra on the back of the fan petals. "It worked for me when I was trying to find a gentleman to get me into the Egyptian Club."
Maddie refrained from pointing out that Amelia's advice had not in fact been what drew Winterson to Cecily. "I do appreciate your concern," she assured both of her cousins, "but I do not wish to —"
She was saved from further discussion by the arrival of Winterson, Deveril, and their friend Colonel Lord Christian Monteith. Only now he was the Earl of Gresham, she corrected herself, thinking of Christian's recent elevation to the title upon the death of his uncle. It was difficult to think of him as Gresham rather than Monteith.
"I thought you were headed for the card room," Juliet said to her angelically handsome husband, Lord Deveril, who was dressed in the first stare of fashion, a ruby pin nestled in the folds of his pristine neck cloth.
"We were," Deveril said with a shrug, his golden curls glinting in the chandelier lights as he slipped a hand down to squeeze Juliet's, "but we ran into Gresham on the way there and lost interest."
"I do seem to have that effect on people," Monteith — or Gresham — said with a flash of white teeth.
As usual, his evening attire was more practical than fashionable, but his broad shoulders and strong thighs filled his coat and breeches impressively. Not that Maddie noticed such things. No, indeed.
"They are so overtaken by my charismatic personality that they can think of little else."
"Don't flatter yourself, old son," said Winterson, who had gravitated to his wife's side like a magnet to iron. "We came back," he told the cousins, "because we saw Amelia Snowe headed this way."
"And you came to protect us?" Cecily asked with deceptive sweetness. "It was gallant of you, darling. But you know that we are perfectly capable of handling her ourselves. We've done so for years now. Without assistance, I might add."
"I would trust you lot to dispatch with any number of villains on your own, my dear," Winterson said, unruffled. "However, she has a friend of ours in tow, who is perhaps not so handy at defeating her as you are. And we thought we might linger nearby lest he needs a helping hand."
Before she could ask which friend was ensnared in Amelia's web, Maddie heard Amelia herself from somewhere behind them.
"You say the most wondrous things, Lord Fortenbury," the beauty, her voice as sugary-sweet as a confection from Gunters, cooed. "I have never heard my eyes compared to stars before."
Maddie shot a speaking glance at Cecily and Juliet. This is the man you wish me to marry? She'd remain a spinster before she subjected herself to such empty flattery on a daily basis. As someone who cherished language and words, she found his lack of imagination especially painful.
"Good God," Gresham muttered to them sotto voce, his expression pained. "I thought Fort had more imagination than that. Eyes like stars, indeed. I am surprised that Miss Snowe doesn't skewer him for such an affront."
But Amelia must be of the opinion that any compliment was better than none at all, and poor Lord Fortenbury blundered on. "Miss Snowe, I could compose an ode to your eyes and a ballad to your br ... eathtaking lips."
At the pause, all of Maddie's party groaned — albeit quietly.
"I feel ill," Cecily said, lifting a hand to her midsection, "and it has nothing to do with my interesting condition. How can he degrade himself like that? It's appalling."
"A man will do a great deal to impress a beautiful woman," Winterson said, taking Cecily's arm and surreptitiously holding her hand.
Maddie averted her eyes and tried to stifle the pang of longing Winterson and Cecily's closeness made her feel. It wasn't that she was jealous of her cousin's happiness. But at times like this she was forcibly reminded that she still remained very much alone. Even Amelia, who was by far the most annoying young lady of her acquaintance, had managed to ensnare poor Lord Fortenbury. Not that Maddie wanted him for herself, but even so she wished for someone she could call her own.
Further conversation was forestalled when Lord Fortenbury, with Miss Snowe on his arm, approached them.
Maddie watched the pair with curiosity. Amelia was just as lovely as ever, though Maddie had long ago ceased to see her outer beauty as anything other than an empty shell. The real Amelia, if it were ever to manifest itself physically, would resemble a hideous gargoyle.
Fortenbury exchanged greetings with the gentlemen, while the ladies offered chilly acknowledgments to one another. It was evident to Maddie that none of them were particularly comfortable with the situation.
"Lady Madeline," Amelia said, breaking the silence first, her voice silky as it often was before she delivered a cutting barb. "What an interesting gown. I don't believe I've seen a waist like that since I was a girl. Never say that is one of Madame Celeste's creations. She is usually so au courant."
Since Maddie knew full well that Amelia frequented the modiste, she knew the remark had little to do with Madame Celeste, and everything to do with the woman wearing the gown. "Indeed it is, Amelia," she returned, not letting a hint of her annoyance show in her face. "Madame Celeste is so talented that I simply put myself in her hands without trying to second-guess her sense of fashion. She is the expert, after all."
Before Amelia could respond, Maddie was startled to hear Gresham speak up.
"I think Lady Madeline has never looked finer," the earl drawled, removing a quizzing glass, which Maddie had never once seen him use, from a hidden pocket in his waistcoat and surveying her from top to toes. Against her will she felt a blush rise from her neck into her cheeks. She would make him pay for this later. She could fight her own battles, thank you very much.
"You are too kind, Lord Gresham," Maddie said through her teeth, glaring at him. But Gresham, ignoring her pique, merely winked at her from behind the glass.
Amelia, who had never been one to argue with an eligible bachelor — even one who was friendly with her mortal enemies — simpered. It was not pretty. "I fear you misunderstand me, my lord," Amelia gushed. "I was trying to tell Lady Madeline how interesting her gown is. I feel sure that Madame Celeste has anticipated what will be the trend before much time has passed." Just in case her backhanded apology did not hit its mark, she extended her lower lip in a very pretty pout. As if she felt quite sad at having been so misunderstood.
"I'm sure Gresham understands his mistake, Miss Snowe," Lord Fortenbury soothed the beauty. "He's not at all the sort to hold a grudge." He turned to the other man with what on someone else would be a glare and asked with as much menace as a puppy could master, "Are you, old fellow?"
Maddie barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes at Fortenbury's protective display. What was it about Miss Snowe that turned men into fools in her presence? Except for Gresham, she mentally amended. He was never one to follow the trend.
"Indeed I am not," Gresham replied to Fortenbury, though he made no move to step away from Maddie's side, for which she was surprisingly grateful. "I do hope, however, that Miss Snowe will attempt to make herself understood from now on. I should hate to hear of some young lady of lesser mettle than Lady Madeline having her feelings wounded by an unguarded word."
Her grudging gratitude to Gresham growing, Maddie watched as Amelia's eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second before she masked the annoyance with more simpering. Before there could be any more conflict, the sound of the orchestra tuning up for the next dance broke through the tension. Apparently deciding that they'd done their conversational duty, Lord Fortenbury and Miss Snowe left them to take their places in the sets forming on the ballroom floor.
"You are a very bad man," Maddie told her champion as the whole group burst into laughter. "I am perfectly capable of routing Miss Amelia Snowe, thank you very much. Even if you did raise her ire, I have managed quite well with Amelia these past few years and do not need a gentleman to ride to my rescue."
"No one said you did," Christian said with a small shrug, not contrite in the least. "I simply thought Miss Snowe might be more willing to take a dressing- down from a gentleman than from another lady. And it would appear that I was correct."
"She did listen," Maddie admitted grudingly, "but do not think that she will forget it. You will be on her black list forever now. I'm not sure she is someone you wish to have as an enemy, my lord."
"I'm not afraid," Gresham said with a grin. "Are you, Lady Madeline?"
Mentally cursing him, Maddie shook her head. "It will take more than Amelia Snowe and her sharp tongue to frighten me. I may not have spent the last decade fighting Bonaparte, but I have a certain amount of skill when it comes to fighting drawing room battles."
The approval that shone in Gresham's blue eyes, or rather her stomach's flip in reaction to it, confused Maddie and she was grateful when Juliet broke in, saying, "I am tired of speaking of Amelia. We spend far too much time worrying about her and how she will affect things."
"She is certainly not my favorite topic of conversation," Deveril agreed, touching his wife lightly on the arm. "I think we should talk of something much more interesting." Turning to Madeline he said, "Juliet tells me that you are writing a novel."
Feeling the flush return to her cheeks, Maddie nodded. "I am, indeed, my lord. Though I pray you will tell no one else about it. I do not wish it to be generally known until I am finished with it and am able to sell it to a publisher."
"What is it about?" Winterson asked, his eyes alight with mischief. "Is it a roman à clef like Caro Lamb's Glenarvon? I should like very much to see certain people lampooned in novel form as she did with Byron."
They all laughed, though Maddie shook her head. "I'm afraid not, your grace. I do not think that I would wish to spend any more time thinking about Amelia than I already must. No, this is to be in the vein of Madame d'Arblay or Miss Austen."
"A love story, then?" Gresham teased, his green eyes alight with mischief. "I would not have taken you for a romantic, Lady Madeline."
"There will be a love story as part of the tale, yes," Maddie said, attempting to maintain her dignity even as his question sent an unfamiliar thrill through her belly. Perhaps she was coming down with something. Daring not meet Gresham's eye, she continued to the others, "The story itself will deal with a young man's inability to extricate himself from the ever more dangerous world of gambling and reckless life on the town."
"I beg your pardon, Maddie." Lord Deveril's blue eyes clouded with confusion. "How will a gently bred young lady be able to write of such things? I cannot imagine that you have ever visited a gambling hell or a house of ... that is to say ..."
"She knows what you're trying to say, dearest," Juliet said to her husband with a smile. "And I must admit, Maddie, to having wondered the same thing. Though I suppose you could use your imagination. Or ask someone — your brother for instance — for a description."
For a moment, Maddie debated whether to ask what she'd been intending to ask. After all, she did not wish to impose upon her friendship with her cousins' husbands. And yet, she did indeed need firsthand experience of a London gaming hell. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she decided. "I don't suppose one of you would condescend to —" she began.
But before she could even complete the sentence, all three men nipped the idea in the bud.
"Never in a million years."
"Not for the wide world."
This last from Gresham, whose scowl reinforced his words. Looking from one to the other she saw that they meant what they said. "Very well," she said with a shrug. "You cannot blame me for asking. I did not think any of you would consider it, but I had to try. It is not a whim, but a necessary part of researching my novel."
"It's not that we do not wish to help you, Madeline," Winterson said kindly. "But it would be unconscionable for one of us to escort you to such a place. Even a gaming hell, which is the least objectionable of the establishments you named."
"Said like a man who hasn't spent much time in gaming hells of late," Gresham said with a frown. "Depending on the place they can be more dangerous than a br ... house of ill repute. Mrs. Bailey's hell, for instance, is supposed to host an exclusive party tomorrow night that promises to include some very deep pockets. And you know how fraught things get when there is a great deal of money to be won and lost."
Maddie, who had been listening with half an ear as she tried to think who else might be persuaded to take her to a hell, stood straighter at the mention of Mrs. Bailey's. She had heard her brother speaking of a Mrs. Bailey last week, but she had assumed he meant a friend or acquaintance.
"Mrs. Bailey's?" she asked, careful not to sound too eager. "You wouldn't happen to know where her establishment is located, would you?"
But it was too good to hope that Gresham would not guess the reason for her question.
"No," he said baldly. "I will not put my neck at risk from your father and your brother by telling you how to get to Bailey's. Or any other hell for that matter."
"Very well," she said, lifting her head in a display of pride. "I will simply be forced to find another way to get there." Turning to Cecily and Juliet she asked, "Would you like to accompany me to the retiring room? If I cannot persuade these gentlemen to help me get to Mrs. Bailey's, I should at least ensure that my hair is still tidy and then see about making use of the dance card."
As the three of them wended their way through the crowded ballroom toward the ladies' withdrawing room, Maddie reflected that she would have to change her tactics. She would approach her brother about escorting her to Mrs. Bailey's. He, too, would protest, but having known him a great deal longer than Winterson, Deveril, or Gresham, she knew exactly how to persuade him. Her mind settled on a plan, she vowed to enjoy the rest of the evening. Because if she was lucky, she would begin researching tomorrow night. (Continues...)
Excerpted from How to Entice an Earl by Manda Collins. Copyright © 2013 Manda Collins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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