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August 25, 1815
Spot the homeliest of the lot, Trent, and speak to her sponsor on my behalf." Caine Morleigh smiled at his friend as he handed his cane and top hat to the attendant. "She should look utterly frightful, perhaps be a bit dull of wit and wanting in every respect, or she won't do."
Trent sighed, rolling his eyes as he tugged at his gloves. "You don't have to do this. You're making far too much of that girl's reaction." He scoffed. "Porridge for brains, that one."
"That's as may be, but I have a more significant reason for this than the way I look." The receiving line had dispersed, and apparently they weren't to be announced, since they had come so late. He led the way, following the music down the wide corridor. He glanced inside a smaller room, which had been set up for card playing and refreshments, then turned and entered the ballroom.
He kept his voice low as he leaned sideways to continue his conversation with Trent. "I need someone who will require little attention, a woman satisfied to simply change her marital status and then leave me alone. I shall have more than enough to do as it is."
Trent huffed. "A woman who needs little attention? Is there such a creature? In my experience"
"I know all about your experience. Now, stop blathering on and help me look."
The gathering at Lord Cavanaugh's was far from a crush, since it was past the regular London season and many had retired to the country. Decorations had been held to a minimum and this appeared to be a rather modest affair. Still the columned entry, the great expanse of highly polished floor and elegantly curved staircase needed little embellishment to shout wealth.
The musicians sounded rather good, though they were few in number compared to events he had attended in years past. He watched the dancers move through their measured steps without much gaity or conversation.
"Not much of a rout, is it," Trent commented with a sigh of resignation. "I've seen more excitement at funerals."
"Suits my need perfectly," Caine responded. Most of the single women present would be the leftovers and their sponsors, hoping for a late-made match. Perhaps with a bit of luck, he could make one of the hopefuls content, if not happy.
Trent snorted. "Damned harebrained idea. You're obsessed with controlling every aspect of your life. Always have been. And it's not possible, y'know."
"I can but try."
"You're treating this like a military campaign, and you know how I hate taking orders!"
"Think of the compensation. You may go for the best-looking one for yourself. It's a small thing I'm asking of you," Caine said, applying his most reasonable tone. "Asking, not ordering. And as a friend, Trent."
"Fine! It's your own throat you're cutting. Your uncle was wrong when he put the condition on you to marry. I wouldn't do it if I were you. You'll have his title no matter what you do or don't."
Caine shrugged. "Yes, but it's the fortune that will go to Cousin Neville, plus the estates, since none is entailed. Think of all the people now employed by the earl who would suffer if Neville lost everything over a stupid game of cards or on a damned horse race. He could, and probably would, piss away everything the family has worked for these last two centuries."
"You don't know that he will. You haven't seen him since you were children."
"Oh, I've heard enough of his maddening exploits from my uncle. Knowing such things, I cannot imagine why he would even consider leaving anything to Neville, but Had-ley seems amused by it all and oddly unconcerned. Therefore, I must prevent it however I can. So I will marry, as he stipulates. I don't have any strong objections. He is my uncle, after all, and I do care about his feelings. I should settle his mind before he gives up the ghost."
"But why must you have a woman who's desperate to marry?" Trent clicked his tongue, exasperated. "Not every female in London runs screaming from the room when she sees you."
"One certainly did."
"Well, only that one, and as I've said before, she's not all there." He tapped his temple with two fingers and shook his head. "Silly witch."
"Well, she's not here, either, which is why I came." Caine heaved out a breath of frustration and began strolling the perimeter of the room, Trent at his side.
"Watch how each miss gives me a look of repulsion as we pass, terrified I will take an interest." He shook his head. "Times such as this, blindness would be a blessing."
"Well, I'm damned glad you're not blind and you ought to be, too! Perhaps their regard is merely a reaction to your grim expression. Try smiling now and again. They could do far worse than you, and you know it. So you have a few scars. A wife would get used to that after the first shock of seeing them."
"I hope you're right." Caine stopped beside a towering plant and picked absently at one of the leaves. "But I think it best to choose a woman not prone to play the social butterfly. The most beautiful exist for it. I despise these sorts of occasions and would like to be done with them."
He hadn't used to hate social events, not when he'd been a young lieutenant, flirting, dancing, assessing the newest crop of preening lovelies, giving Trent solid competition. That's how he had found a little beauty of excellent birth, whom he had thought would be the perfect mate for a rising army officer. A young fool's mistake, that. Now he knew better.
He had been only third in line for the earldom then, with a military career underway. However, with the deaths of his father and a brother during the years Caine had served in the army, he was now set to inherit from the eldest of that generation, his uncle. He had not been born to the title, nor had he been trained for it. The responsibilities were enormous, greater than he had ever imagined. There was so much to learn. So much to sort out.
The old earl, who admittedly was not long for the world, demanded that his heir be settled and ready to assume his duties. That involved Caine's getting a wife immediately, so here he was, shopping. He surveyed the goods, evaluating faces, postures, attitudes.
This time he knew he must rely on different currency for the negotiations. The women he had been well acquainted with in his life thus far had proved rather shallow, valuing a handsome face, charm and practised manners well above anything else in a man. They left it to their practical families to ascertain whether their choice possessed the necessary means to support them.
Now he must find a suitable woman desperate enough to overlook his altered appearance and lack of social inclinations to settle for his prospective wealth and title. More important, as he had impressed on Trent, he needed one who would not impact on the time he would require to fulfill his duties as earl. The task of handling the earl's business matters already proved daunting. He must live up to it.
Trent's words troubled him. Did such a woman as he required actually exist? He continued scanning the ballroom, dwelling on the corners where the wallflowers perched, trying to conceal their hopes and dreams behind fans and half smiles. None of their smiles were directed at him.
Suddenly, his good eye landed on one in pale yellow, a painfully thin figure with lank brown hair, a colorless complexion and enormous, doelike eyes. Caine immediately sensed in her a mixture of hopelessness and resignation, yet she somehow maintained an air of calm dignity he admired. "A definite possibility there," he muttered, more to himself than to Trent.
The girl was not precisely ugly, but it was certain no one would describe her as pretty. He felt a tug of. .what? Sympathy? No, more like empathy. She did not wish to be here, either, most likely for similar reasons. Yet they must be here, probably striving toward the same goala suitable match.
These mating rituals were such a trial for any not blessed with the allure necessary to attract the opposite sex. At least he would have wealth and the title to recommend him. She had only her dignity apparently. If she were an heiress, she would certainly be better dressed, coiffed and bejeweled. Her pale neck and earlobes were completely bare.
If he could look past her surface, perhaps she would be willing to look past his. But he must put it to her in a way she would find palatable. He couldn't very well say "You look like a quiet, unprepossessing chit I could count on to not complicate my life any further than it is already."
Could he summon enough charm, persuasion and outrageous bribery to convince this one to have him? Yes, he decided, approaching her might be worth the risk of rejection.
"Yes, I think so," he said to himself. "That one, Trent," he said, nodding toward the candidate. "The one in the lemon-colored frock. She'll do."
"What? She's a bean stalk, Morleigh, and the beans don't appear to have developed yet."
"I'm not out for beans," Caine said tersely, his gaze still resting on the waiflike girl.
"Well, she looks like death on a plate. I doubt she'll live through the month, much less the rigors of a wedding." He nudged Caine with his elbow. "Besides, you said you'd let me choose."
"Don't be tedious. I believe she's the one, so go. Do what we came to do," Caine said simply, straightening his sleeves.
He hoped to have the selection completed with this one foray into society, because it was damned uncomfortable submitting himself to all these stares. He knew he wasn't that monstrous looking and that they were mostly curious, but it bothered him.
His left eye bore only a few scars, but those surely made everyone imagine the very worst of the one he kept covered. The right, he always avoided looking at in the mirror and concealed it behind a rather large eye patch whenever he was in company.
That was probably a useless vanity due to the well-broadcast observation of Miss Thoren-Snipes, his former fiancée. She had declared to one and all that he was a horrible sight that turned her off sick, a fright she would never forget, one that caused her nightmares.
To her credit, his aunt's reaction that day had verified that Belinda did not exaggerate by much. He made women faint, cast up their accounts and scream in their sleep. Avoiding that hardly qualified as vanity on his part. No, more like a gentleman's consideration, he thought.
Trent did not understand, and why should he? He had the wherewithal to pick and choose and take his own sweet time about it. No woman would refuse Gavin Trent, handsome as he was, a hero of the wars and witty as hell. Caine owed him his life, admired him enormously and wished him well. Envy had no place in a friendship as enduring as theirs. But Trent's eternal optimism and infernal teasing tried his patience to extremes.
The girl in yellow was now getting an earful from one of the other unfortunates, an overweight dumpling who seemed entirely too vivacious to qualify as second choice if he needed one. Her glance left no doubt about whom she had chosen to revile.
Caine wondered if perhaps he was overly sensitive and tried not to be, but he was unused to it yet. He had attended none of these functions since his return to London. He was grateful that he was still able to see and wished he could simply bypass mirrors forever and ignore how he looked. If not for this acquiring of a wife, he could be content with himself as he was.
The object of his future suit looked up and her very direct gaze again met his across the room. He should march right over and ask her to dance. Three times running. That would seal the deal. But not yet.
Caine snagged a glass of champagne off the silver tray of a passing waiter circulating among the guests. He raised it slightly, toasting the girl, and forced a smile as he spoke to his friend. "Go, Trent. Find out who she is. I'll wait here."
"You're certain you want to go through with this?"
"Yes, quite." He sipped the sparkling wine and concealed a wince. He preferred a stouter drink with some substance to it.
A quarter hour later, Trent rejoined Caine. "She's Ward-felton's niece, Lady Grace Renfair," he declared. "His lordship laughed in my face when I spoke with him. Told me she has no dowry. She's penniless. Worthless was the word he used to describe her, an ailing, aging millstone around his neck and none too bright."
"Aging? How old is she?"
"Twenty-four or thereabout. I inquired of a few others, as well as her uncle. Lady Nebbins, that old talebearer, told me the chit was orphaned at sixteen, engaged to Barkley's second son, a lieutenant in the navy, who died aboard The
Langston six years ago. She lived as companion to the lad's widowed mother until that lady remarried. Lady Grace has been with Wardfelton for these past two years."
"Ah, good. Of suitable birth then. And something in common already, noble uncles with a foot on our necks. Perhaps she's ready for a change."
Trent hummed his agreement. "I don't doubt that. Rumor about town had it she was perhaps dead. People had begun wondering aloud whether she was deceased and how she came to be so. It's thought Wardfelton has trotted her out tonight to dispense with the gossip. I must say, she might yet make it a fact. To call her frail would be kind."
Caine smiled. "No matter. I can go forward with it then."
"Ah, well, there's a fly in the ointment," Trent informed him. He rocked to and fro as he spoke. "Wardfelton didn't take me, or my request on your behalf, seriously at all. He thinks we are making fun of his simpleminded niece and seemed to find it highly amusing that we should do so."
"Simpleminded?" Caine didn't believe it for a second.