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No Ordinary Groom
Miss Jane Whittington sat at her dressing table, her chin resting on her hand, and stared at her own reflection. There was a pensiveness about her that put an odd wrinkle between her slim, black eyebrows and turned down the corners of her mouth.
This was now the face of an engaged woman.
No wonder she looked miserable.
She groaned and swept to her feet. Her mother was giving a dinner party this evening in celebration of Jane's engagement to a baron, William, Lord Chadwick. Even if Jane had to force a smile, she would do it for her mother's sake, though she still felt hurt by her father's haste and secrecy in arranging the match. She had been waiting for the right time to tell them she didn't wish to marry at all, that she wanted to control her own dowry.
Was it too late?
She picked up her thin gloves from the dressing table and slid them on like armor before a battle. For once she remembered them without having to be reminded. There was nothing left to do but go downstairs, greet their guests, and formulate a miraculous plan of escape from her fate.
When she reached the second-floor landing, she was able to peer over the edge of the wide staircase. She immediately caught the eye of the man glancing up.
Lord Chadwick, her groom. She wanted to look away, but there was something in his gaze she hadn't seen before, an intensity that felt strangely ... intimate. A hot blush swept over her face. She was behaving like a girl fresh from the schoolroom instead of a sensible woman of twenty-one years. For a moment he didn't smile, and she felt an absurd hesitation, a feeling of something dark and hidden beneath his usually cheerful countenance. Then he gave that irreverent grin that made him seem so ... shallow, and she dismissed her unusual feeling as nothing but a flight of fancy.
She had become acquainted with Lord Chadwick but a week before, at a dinner party hosted by her sister Charlotte, a widow newly out of mourning. He had been all charm and good manners and decent looksand rather too talkative, she thought reluctantly.
Giving him a cool nod, she put her hand lightly on the banister and descended the stairs, studying him. He was a man of decent height and nice breadth of shoulders beneath a perfectly cut black evening coat. His face was lean, with a pair of deep dimples scoring his cheeks when he smiled. His teeth were shockingly white and his eyes brown. His dark hair -- a non-descript brown to match his eyes, she thought -- was slicked back with macassar oil, and his long sideburns had a touch of gray that made his age hard to determine. Her father, Viscount Whittington, hadn't thought to include such personal information in the letter that had told her the un-welcome news about her marriage.
Overall, there was nothing to dislike about Lord Chadwick's countenance -- his description could fit a score of her male acquaintances. When he wasn't talking, he could almost be called handsome. Most women would be quite content, but Jane could not understand settling for such a feeling.
When she reached the foot of the stairs, Lord Chadwick bowed over her gloved hand and brought it to his lips for a moment too long.
His eyes, as well as his mouth, smiled up at her. "Good evening, Miss Whittington."
She nodded perfunctorily and removed her hand from his. "Good evening, Lord Chadwick."
As he straightened, she watched his gaze slide down her body. It seemed impersonal, as if he were merely deciding if she was properly dressed for the occasion. She should be offended, but she was only annoyed.
She put her hand on his offered arm and walked beside him into the drawing room. She could see that only a few guests had arrived. They were scattered between overstuffed tasseled chairs and sofas, potted ferns and marble columns. Cluttered on every table and shelf was her mother's odd collection of bric-a-brac, including the unusual gifts from Jane's father.
Just the thought of his many years in exotic countries made Jane sigh with a frustrated longing to travel abroad -- something her mother didn't understand. Jane had made plans for her dowry money in anticipation of her parents' acquiescence, mapping out each country she would visit, continuing to learn the appropriate languages. She refused to give up on her dreams so quickly.
Lady Whittington stood arm in arm with Charlotte Sinclair, Jane's sister. The two women were so alike in their petite, rounded beauty; Jane felt like a lanky giraffe next to them. They watched her and the baron with hopeful speculation.
Lord Chadwick led her near a small table, then turned to face her. "I say, your gown is quite the fashion, my dear."
She began to wonder if he flashed his dimples with deliberation. "Thank you, my lord. You do justice to your garments, as well." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother whiten with shock.
But Lord Chadwick only looked inordinately pleased. "Do you really think so? I must say that since I arrived in London a month ago, I have been frequenting many a tailor to find just the right man for the style I require."
Jane's smile remained frozen on her face. Surely he would not subject her to the details.
"I am quite exacting in my demands about the quality of material and the emphasis on the latest designs."
He suddenly walked about her, and she narrowed her eyes at the spectacle he was making of himself.
"I do have an exacting eye," he continued, "with a little help."No Ordinary Groom. Copyright © by Gayle Callen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.