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August, 1915, Warrenford Park
Are you enjoying the party, my dear?' Robert Veryan, Viscount Keddinton, rocked back on his heels, as though proud of the job he had done in entertaining his only goddaughter. His wife, Felicity, stood on her other side, equally satisfied with their efforts.
Verity Carlow looked around the ballroom at Warren-ford Park. The walls were a pristine white, the accents gold, the design classic and without the fussy Rococo that she had seen in some houses. The music playing in the background was sedate, and as clean and expertly rendered as the white walls. The dancers on the polished marble floor moved to the tune like clockwork figures, and the observers kept their chatter to a polite and unobtrusive level.
It was well-ordered perfection.
The sight of it made her head ache. She gave her host a brave smile that did not suit her mood and said, 'It is a lovely evening. Thank you so much, Uncle Robert.' He was no more her real uncle than this ball was a true entertainment. But if he wished to think himself so, it would be unkind to disappoint him or to complain that throwing her this party was little better than putting curtains over the bars of a cage.
She could not, for one minute, fool herself into thinking that this was a pleasant trip to the country. Her brother, Marcus, had made it clear that she was being sent to Keddinton's country estate so that the family could more easily control her acquaintances and associations.
It was more than a little unfair of Marc to treat her so. In her twenty-one years, she had done nothing to give her family cause to worry. Her past was devoid of even the smallest misstep. But it did not matter to anyone what she had or had not done. When they had sent her into exile, her brothers cited unnamed predators and vague 'risks to the family' and promised that it was done for her own safety. But when she had asked for details, they had been unwilling to clarify their statements so that she might do anything to protect herself.
How could she know what to guard against, if no one would tell her the truth? When she asked who or what she needed to avoid, the best they would manage was a rueful shake of their heads, and the answer, 'Everything.' They had packed her off to the country, where she would be bored but safe. And there would be no getting 'round Keddinton on the details of the trouble, or when it might be safe for her to return to London. Uncle Robert was the biggest spymaster in England. She might as well have tried to coax secrets out of the ballroom walls.
He was smiling at her now. And though his expression seemed harmless and friendly, she was sure his sharp grey eyes were as ever-watchful as a jailer's. As if to confirm the fact, he said, 'I promised your father that I would keep you safe. And so I shall. It is an honour and a privilege to do so. But it must have been difficult for you to leave your friends in town.'
'It was no hardship to come here,' she lied. 'You know that I always enjoy our visits.' Although she was not sure why he felt the need to watch over her so closely. If there were evil people who wished to harm her, did it not make more sense to find and cage them, instead of standing guard on her as though they expected her to instigate the problem through her own foolishness?
Lady Keddinton added her thoughts to her husband's. 'We want to make sure that you are not feeling blue. And we will give you opportunity to continue to socialize. For I know your family had hoped that, by now, you would have made a match.'
Verity looked at her hostess more closely. Was this an honest comment or just another quiet prod to make her choose from among the carefully vetted candidates in this room? She would think it was the latter, had not Aunt Felicity two unmarried daughters to dispose of.
Not that she wished to poach suitors from the Veryan girls. Verity had hoped that she might be free for a time from making any choice at all. She gave a firm nod of thanks and said, 'There have been three weddings in the family within twelve months. We have had quite enough excitement, even without my help. I think it is probably better that I wait another Season to marry, if only to avoid further stress upon father.'
'But it would not stress him at all,' Uncle Robert said. 'I know for a fact that he is most eager to see you settled.'
Before he dies. Why would he not just say the words aloud, for he was clearly thinking them?
Verity wished that she were allowed to curse, even in the silence of her own mind. To do it aloud would be even better. There were times when it would be most satisfying to tell everyone what she was really thinking. She would say that there was not a single man in London or the country that had raised in her the least desire for an association longer than a single dance. But everyone expected her to make a choice that would set the course of her entire life, so that her father could pass on, believing she was happy and settled.
Uncle Robert was still smiling. 'Now that Alexander is home, you need not fear loneliness.'
'I am sure you will find him good company. You played together quite charmingly when children.' Aunt Felicity was smiling as if there was little left to arrange but a suitable date and the menu for a wedding breakfast.
Although she worked very hard to retain control of her emotions, Verity could not marshal the small sigh that escaped her, on the mention of the Veryans' son. She remembered him not as a good playfellow, but as a miserable little toad. Their recent meetings had done nothing to change her opinion of him. If the true reason for this visit was to isolate her from London Society to put the good character of Alexander Veryan in sharper relief, then she would make her brothers pay dearly for the trick.
Especially since, once they chose to marry, everyone around her had paired off in record time with people that would be considered far too unsuitable for her. Though his bride, Nell, was the sweetest girl in the world, Marcus had married beneath his station. Her sister, Honoria, had admitted in a particularly unguarded letter, that her new husband had only recently stopped smuggling and found honest trade. Even Diana Price, who had been a paragon of virtue while she had chaperoned the Carlow girls, had thrown propriety aside to marry the gambler Nathan Wardale.
Of course, brother Hal's wife, Julia, was beyond reproach. But since Hal himself was incorrigible, his choosing such a worthy bride had been as surprising as the others' selections.
It was clear that each of the matches had been made on the basis of an almost overpowering attraction. The parties involved had been swept away by their feelings, and had given over to actions that were most unlike their usual behaviour.
Then they had all turned to Verity, thinking that for her it would be different. She was to be the sensible one and listen to the wise counsel of people who were happy enough to ignore their own advice. She was expected to barter herself away to someone like Alexander Veryan, making a minimum of bother to her family. Everyone could then go back to their adoring spouses, secure in the knowledge that it was someone else's job to worry about little Verity's future happiness.
'And here is Alexander, now.' Lady Keddinton smiled with such pride at the approach of her son that he might as well have been Lord Wellington in full dress uniform.
But all Verity saw was a young man graced with deficiencies in height and colouring, whose grey Veryan eyes seemed watery and cold in his pale face.
'Verity.' He bowed to her and reached for her hand before she could offer it. His own was soft and damp.
'Alexander.' Why could she not stop smiling, even when cool indifference was needed? Mother's obsessive insistence that she be graceful and charming in all situations was no aid in putting off this most persistent of young men.
'Are you free for the next dance?'
She glanced at the musicians, who were running through the first notes of a quadrille. Saying yes now would allow her to beg off later, should the dance master call for a waltz, or some other dance that required prolonged physical contact with her partner. She smiled again. 'Of course, Alexander.' She allowed him to keep her hand as he led her to the floor, hoping that he did not equate simple courtesy with a desire on her part for increased intimacy.
They formed up with three other couples to begin the intricate steps of the dance. And immediately, her pulse quickened and her fears of a sensible future with Alexander dissolved. She was looking across the square into the eyes of the most fascinating man she'd ever seen. The eyes in question were large and dark, liquid and bottomless, fringed with long black lashes, and set in an olive-skinned face. The man's nose was straight, and his full lips curved in the faintest of smiles as he looked across at her, returning her admiration.
She walked around him, following the dance. It gave her an opportunity to admire the cut of his coat. He was almost too well dressed, his clothes narrowly missing foppishness, just as his face on another man might have been feminine. The darkness of his skin made his cravat and shirt seem blindingly white, and his deep blue coat was as soft and dark as the night.
There was a glint of silver at his wrist, when he reached for her hand, as though his shirt cuff concealed some bit of jewellery. What an unusual thing it was, to see a man ornamented in such a way. If she had truly seen a bracelet, there must be some story attached to it. Looking at the man, she was sure that the tale would be both exciting and romantic, and that she would very much enjoy hearing it.
The touch of his hand was warm and dry, and full of interesting roughness. She wondered just what he had been doing to cause those imperfections. Riding? Duelling? Or was he adept at some art or science that she knew nothing of? In any case, he was gentle to her, and the friction of skin against skin was delicate and exciting.
She returned with reluctance to her own partner, and he caught her hand again in his disappointingly moist grip.
So went the dance, with a series of brief and inviting touches from the gentleman opposite her that made poor Alexander suffer by comparison.
Through it all, the dark stranger smiled at her. There was no mistaking his interest. He was looking at her with curiosity and a bit of sympathy, as though he wondered how she came to be matched with the man beside her. And was she mistaking it, or was there longing there, as well? If she read the truth on his face, he wished he had been partnering her instead of the woman at his side. That woman was receiving only polite attention from him, much to her obvious chagrin.
Verity smiled back at him, wishing she had a fan to hide her blush and covertly signal her interest. If Lady Keddinton would allow an introduction, she was sure that he would turn out to be a horrible rake. He looked like just the sort of man that Diana would have singled out as the worst in the room.
And the hint of a sparkle in his eyes told her that he could see how he was affecting her. For all her previous and undesired poise, she could find no way to disguise her reaction to the stranger.
Verity felt another pang of loneliness. She needed the guidance of Diana and Honoria. Either of them would have prevented her from doing what she longed to do right now. Diana would have cautioned her against it. And Honoria would have very likely done it in her stead. But as Verity looked at the dark man, she felt the undeniable tug of curiosity. She wanted to talk to him.
When the dance ended, she asked Alexander to return her to Aunt Felicity, and go to fetch a lemonade. Once he was out of earshot, she asked Lady Keddinton, 'Who is that man, standing there, by the musicians?' She held her breath, taken by the sudden fear that he was an uninvited guest. Suppose he was the stranger she had been warned about, and his interest in her sprung from a desire to do her harm?
Lady Keddinton, who was many years married and far too sensible to do such a thing, blushed like a schoolgirl. 'That is Lord Salterton. He is ' She paused for a moment, as though trying to remember how she had come to invite someone more interesting than Alexander to Verity's party. 'A friend of my husband's, I believe.' She glanced around, seeking Uncle Robert's agreement, but he was deep in conversation on the other side of the room. She returned her attention to the man they had been discussing. 'He is recently returned to London, having travelled in the Orient.' She gave the smallest sigh. 'A most fascinating gentleman.'
Verity's fears subsided. He could have no part in the family's recent troubles, if he had been in the Orient when they happened. She gave a small, envious sigh. If she asked, would he share stories of his adventures? After looking into his eyes, she was sure that he had seen things that were wonderful, horrible and far more exciting than anything found in her limited experience. 'It must be very educational to be so widely travelled. May I ' Verity paused, trying not to appear too eager. ' May I be introduced to him? Or would that be too forward?'
Her hostess hesitated, as though trying to find a logical reason to separate the guest of honour from one of the guests brought to honour her.
But the gentleman in question settled the matter for them. He was making his way across the room towards them, moving with a dancer's grace as though he was walking in time to the music. He bowed slightly to his hostess, and favoured her with a smile that made the old lady's face turn an even more shocking shade of pink. 'Lady Keddinton, such a lovely evening. It is good to be warmly welcomed, after such a long time away from England.'