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Robert Magson, Duke of Reighland, treated each new ballroom like an Indian jungle set with traps not for tigers, but for unwary men. There were so many mamas and daughters in London that he would not have been surprised to see them lurking behind the furniture at White's. And they were all eager to catch his eye, even for just a moment.
It was as though they thought he could decide on a bride based on a single glance in a crowded room. He spent more time buying a horse than that. He would never lay down money without checking teeth, feeling fetlocks and enquiring of the bloodline. Surely the choice of a wife should be made with equal care.
He frowned out into the mob and watched two or three young ladies curtsy as his gaze roved over them. It was an odd feeling, this sudden deference, as though his slightest glance was the withering glare of the noon sun in a garden full of delicate blossoms. The same girls would not have looked twice at him a year ago. Then his cousin had died. And suddenly he was the catch of the Season.
He frowned harder and watched the crowd contract to give him more space. It was not as if he did not mean to marry one of them. But there were far too many who had hopes in his direction. One could not appear too welcoming, if one wanted even a moment of peace in the evenings.
To be fair, the rout tonight was surprisingly convivial. And he had no reason to suspect his host, the Earl of Folbroke, was plotting against him. The man was too young to have marriageable children and, to the best of Robert's knowledge, had no sisters.
'I hear you are thinking of offering for Benbridge's daughter,' said Folbroke from his place at Robert's side.
It surprised him that that particular bit of news had travelled so quickly. While he had been paying court to several young ladies in a halfhearted and unenthusiastic way, the matter of Benbridge's daughter had been introduced into conversation only recently. But apparently, it was already on dit. 'What might have given you that idea?' he asked blandly. 'I have not even met the girl, yet.'
'According to my wife, Lady Benbridge is telling everyone that your back has been broken by the parson's mousetrap.' The earl smiled. 'As far as the bit that has trapped you? It does not surprise me that you have not met her. None of us has seen her for quite some time. Of course, I would not notice, even if she were here.' Folbroke adjusted his smoked glasses.
It was a continual surprise to Robert that the earl was so casual in calling attention to his blindness. He supposed it prevented people from treating him like an invalid, when there was no reason to. Although he tended to stay at the edge of the room during events such as these, Folbroke looked no more uncomfortable than the other gentlemen that lounged against the walls to avoid the press of bodies at the centre of the floor.
Robert admired his studied casualness and sought to emulate it so that he might appear more comfortable in society than he felt. Four months after becoming Reighland it was still an effort not to turn and search the room for Gregory when someone called him by the title. He offered a silent prayer for the bright and smiling child that had been meant for this honour, just as he longed for the wise counsel of his father. Sometimes it felt that his family had not so much died as abandoned him to make his own way in a confusing world. Now, his frown deepened at the rumours swirling about him. 'Despite what Lady Benbridge might think on the matter, I wish to meet the girl before I offer for her. I might be new to the marriage mart, but not so new that I will take her sight unseen.'
Folbroke smiled in response, as he always did. He was a particularly good-humoured fellow. But Robert suspected that there was something about the situation that the earl found particularly amusing. 'In any case,' he said, 'you must meet Hendricks. He will want to welcome you to the family.' Robert hoped that Folbroke was not laughing at him for he quite liked the man and would hate to find him as false as some of the others who had been eager to offer friendship to his face while laughing behind their hands at his country manners.
'Hendricks,' Folbroke called, 'come here. There is someone you must meet.'
That was it, then, Robert thought, relaxing a little. Hendricks was Folbroke's protege. Apparently, this event had been meant to arrange a casual introduction to his Grace, the Duke of Reighland. There was no real harm in it, he supposed. He had heard that the Hendricks fellow was damned useful to know. And when it came to navigating the subtleties of London, Robert could use all the help he could get.
A bespectacled man all but materialised out of the crowd, as though the room was a stage and he had been waiting in the wings for an entrance. It was nicely done. Though Robert had been watching closely, he'd never have suspected that Hendricks had been watching for a cue from the earl.
'You wished something, Folbroke?' Hendricks's voice was raised to be heard over the noise of the crowd, but he still managed to sound quiet and deferential. His choice of words made him seem even more like an Arabian djinn.
'Only to present you to Reighland,' Folbroke shouted back at him. 'Your Grace, John Hendricks is husband to the lovely Drusilla Roleston. Dru is the elder Benbridge daughter and sister to your fair Priscilla.' He stared in the direction of Hendricks, who was dipping his head to hear over the roar of voices. 'John, Reighland is likely to be your brother-in-law. Make nice to him.'
Hendricks's eyebrows raised in surprise before he could master his emotion and turn to Robert with a bow. 'How do you do, your Grace?'
Robert gave him a stiff nod of response. 'Not as well as Folbroke seems to think. She is not my Priscilla, Folbroke. Despite what society claims, my intentions are not set in stone. I have not even met the girl,' he added again, wondering just what was wrong with people in London. They gossiped as though rumour was air and they could not survive without it. 'I do mean to seek an introduction to her. If there is compatibility between us ' He gave a half-shrug.
Hendricks nodded. 'If you would permit, your Grace, I would like to introduce my wife to you. She is eager for all things to do with Priss and will be glad to know you.'
'She cannot ask Priscilla herself?'
'Sadly, no.' Hendricks smiled benignly at him. 'Because of me, I'm afraid. The Earl of Benbridge did not think me good enough for his family. To my eternal good fortune, Lady Drusilla did not share his opinion, but now my poor Dru is quite cut off from associating with her sister.'
'And if I might say so, Benbridge is a fool,' Folbroke said calmly. 'You will not find better company in this room than John Hendricks, nor will you find a sharper mind.'
Robert had heard similar sentiments voiced by others. Hendricks was seen as an up and comer in political circles for his pleasant demeanour and his uncanny ability to be always in the right place at the right time. 'Is the attendance of the older sister the reason I do not see the younger here?' Robert asked, slightly annoyed by the fact. On the few times they'd spoken, the Earl of Benbridge had seemed a stiff-backed old fool who was not nearly as smart or important as he seemed to think himself. This was merely another confirmation of it. It was interesting to see that, having to choose between the company of one or the other, Folbroke would rather associate with his inferior than with Benbridge, a man of equal rank. Robert stored the information for future reference.
Hendricks nodded in answer to his question. 'Since we were invited this evening, Priscilla would not be permitted to come. It is damned unreasonable of him. My wife and I cannot forgo society just to prevent embarrassment for a family that will not welcome Dru back, no matter what she does.' He glanced at Robert and pushed his spectacles up his nose. 'If you should happen to marry Priss, you will have our felicitations, of course. But we will make no attempt to ruin the girl's wedding by expecting an invitation and upsetting her father.'
Robert found this even more annoying than the assumptions of his choice of bride. It had never occurred to him to care who was in the pews at St George's; now he had received his first refusal before the invitations had been engraved. 'This is hardly set in stone,' he repeated. 'I have spoken to Benbridge about it, of course, but I have not even met the girl.' Then a thought struck him. 'But you have, haven't you? How did you find her?'
There was a fleeting expression of caution in Hendricks's eyes, just before he spoke. Then he said heartily, 'She is a great beauty. All blonde curls, blue eyes and dimples. She will make someone a most attractive wife, I am sure. The children will be lovely.'
He'd managed to mention looks three times in as many seconds. Yet Robert was sure that the man did not like her, or her blonde curls. He had chosen the other sister. And it was obvious that he doted on her.
But that did not mean Robert might not like Priscilla, if he ever saw her. A pretty wife was better than an ugly one.
'You will have Benbridge's favour as well,' Hendricks added. 'Priscilla is his favourite.'
'The thought had crossed my mind,' Robert replied. If marriage was to be little better than a connection between powerful families, he could do much worse than an earl's daughter. If he wished to put forth any of his ideas in Parliament, it could not hurt to have an elder statesman at his back. And judging by the value Ben-bridge set on status and decorum, he must have drilled his daughter in the rules of good behaviour, practically from birth. She would rescue him from his tendency to social faux pas.
With the number of men between him and the title, he had never expected to be a duke. But Lady Priscilla had been bred to be a duchess, or at the very least a countess. She would know what was expected of her. And he would not have to give another thought to the running of his households and social life. It would be a great relief.
But it annoyed him that Hendricks could not seem to find any word for the girl other than that she was pretty. It made him wonder if there was some secret. Hereditary madness, perhaps? Given the choice between that or weakness of character Robert almost preferred the second. While he had seen virtuous children with wanton parents, a lack of wit seemed to carry through the generations.
'Priss is the apple of his eye,' Hendricks affirmed, interrupting his musings. 'And here is mine.' The woman who was approaching them seemed sane enough. But she was neither blonde nor blue eyed. Nor did she share anything in common with Benbridge's rather florid complexion. Years of horse breeding told him that such a variety of colouring was unusual in siblings.
'Your wife is Priscilla's stepsister, did you say?' he guessed.
Hendricks gave him an odd look and Folbroke seemed more than usually impervious. 'I said no such thing, your Grace.'
Which meant that too great a knowledge of biology had just led him to question the legitimacy of the former Drusilla Roleston. He doubted that the woman had heard him above the other voices. And her husband was too eager for his patronage to rebuke him.
But it was yet another proof that he needed a keeper to muzzle him in these situations and pave over any mistakes with gracious smiles.