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London, England, Spring 1805
Where was he?
Lady Imogene Devary stood at the edge of the crowded ballroom, up on the toes of her white kid evening slippers. She hadn't even had a chance to dance, yet her heart was pounding in her satin-covered chest, and she could barely catch her breath.
Where was he, the stranger who had appeared at her door the past three days? Her father, Lord Widmore, had refused to see him each time, most recently so loudly the miniature of her little brother had clattered against the wall. Why did the stranger so concern him?
She peered about, twisting this way and that. The sounds of the ball brushed against her: the rise and fall of a hundred conversations, the strains of a string quartet, the dull thump of slippered pumps on hardwood and the laughter of flirtation. The Mayweathers had rented the prestigious Elysium Assembly Rooms for their annual ball. A dozen fluted columns marched down the center in Grecian elegance, and two crystal chandeliers hung from the gilded, domed ceiling above. Ladies in satins and velvets strolled past, and gentlemen nodded at Imogene in greeting. She knew almost every one of the nearly three hundred guests. How could a stranger escape notice?
Had he seen her pacing him in the ballroom when she'd first spied him earlier? She'd been shocked that anyone her father refused to acknowledge would be allowed entrance to such a fine occasion. So where had he gone now? Had he ensconced himself in the card room like her mother? Evaporated like a wisp of her imagination? Was she never to learn the truth?
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.
Yes, she had to hope in that verse. She had a purpose in spending her time searching the ballroom when she ought to be finding herself the perfect suitor. She loved her father too much to see him harassed. Hadn't they suffered enough? Or perhaps the stranger thought their suffering made them vulnerable. She squared her shoulders. That fellow would learn the Devary family was made of stronger stuff.
But perhaps she would not be able to convince him tonight. She puffed out a sigh and lowered herself to her heels. If she could not find him, she would have to determine another way to wrest some pleasure from the remainder of the evening. Tomorrow she could question Elisa about the guest list, perhaps identify him that way. She'd simply thought she would be better at this espionage business.
Her good friend Elisa Mayweather certainly had a talent for going unnoticed. She had pressed her back against the creamy white wall, and Imogene was certain she was strategically placed so that a column hid her from her imperious mother. As if to be certain no one would recognize her, she fluttered an ivory fan before her long face, embroidered satin skirts swinging with the motion. Another friend stood sentinel beside her.
Imogene hurried to join them. "Why aren't you dancing?" she asked, noticing their tight lips, their deep frowns.
Elisa snapped her fan shut and leveled it at a group of men crowding the far corner. "She's doing it again."
Kitty Longbourne sniffed, dark eyes narrowed to slits that made her resemble her nickname. "Rotten beau-snatcher."
"What, not you, too?" Imogene whirled to join her glare to theirs. "Freddie Pulsipher has lived in your pocket the past year. Don't tell me he's defected."
"Defected and forgotten me entirely," Kitty said, her normally dulcet voice closer to a growl. She shook her pale skirts and lifted her chin as if she were well rid of the boy.
"That is the outside of enough!" Imogene started toward the group. Elisa snatched at her shoulder to pull her up, fingers biting into the lace on Imogene's short sleeves.
"Where are you going? You can't accost her!" Elisa's wide brown eyes begged Imogene not to cause a scene.
But Imogene wasn't about to stand along the wall like some hothouse palm and bemoan her fate. She might not be able to find that stranger tonight, but she could help her friends.
She patted Elisa's hand. "There, now. I shan't kick up a dust. But someone must put a stop to her."
"This is her first Season," Elisa said, dropping her hand. "She was only presented to the queen two weeks ago. Perhaps she doesn't know the rules."
"I understand she was raised in the back of beyond," Kitty agreed with another sniff, this time of decided superiority.
Imogene had heard the rumors, too. The girl was an orphan with only three male cousins for guardians. That might have been enough to put Imogene in charity toward her, except her rival was also a beautiful heiress, with her own title no less, and the respected Lady Claire Winthrop was her sponsor. Where the young gentlemen of London were concerned, those factors conspired to make Samantha, Lady Everard, very popular indeed. But that her friends should be ignored while every gentleman danced attendance on the upstartwell, that was something Imogene would not tolerate.
"I don't intend to rip out her hair," Imogene informed them, to which Kitty muttered, "Whyever not?" Imogene shook her head. "But something must be done. Look, this set is ending, and the musicians are likely to take a short break. I for one plan to have a partner when they strike up the music again." Before her friends could say another word to dissuade her, she lifted her white skirts and swept across the room.
Her way was impeded immediately. Couples promenaded past, gazes entwined. A collection of dowagers debated the latest fashions. Distinguished gentlemen gestured with crystal goblets, intent on making their points on politics.
But by far the largest single group, at least three deep, was clustered in the corner. Imogene couldn't even make out the lady at the center. That truly did seem excessive. A girl on her first Season should expect a loyal group of followers but not at the expense of every other young lady on the ton.
Imogene put on her prettiest smile and tapped the rear gentleman on the shoulder. Short as she was, it was difficult to tell his identity from the back, but she recognized him the moment he turned.
"Mr. Wainsborough," Imogene informed him, "I am quite vexed with you."
He blinked blue eyes as if suddenly finding himself transported to the farthest reaches of the Empire. "Lady Imogene, I have no idea what I could have done, but I most sincerely beg your pardon."
Imogene raised her chin. "You are forgiven, so long as you march yourself over to Miss Elisa Mayweather and ask her to dance."
"Miss Mayweather?" He glanced around the room, and Imogene nudged him to the left so he could see Elisa standing against the wall. He looked back at the crowd of gentlemen, then returned his gaze to Imogene as if begging for mercy.
She narrowed her eyes at him. He slumped in defeat. "Of course. Delighted. Your servant, Lady Imogene."
She waited only until he was on his way before tapping the next nearest fellow. "You, sir, are no gentleman."
He jerked around, sandy brows up in surprise. "Why, Lady Imogene, what do you mean?"
Imogene put her hands on her hips. "Here you stand while my good friend Kitty Longbourne pines away for a moment on the dance floor."
"She's pining?" His head turned as if he expected to see Kitty reclining on a divan with a cold compress on her forehead.
Imogene caught his coat, pointed him toward Kitty and gave him a push. "Go on, now. There's a good lad."
As he started off, she pulled up her long gloves and tapped the next fellow.
By the time the musicians started tuning up again, she had succeeded in peeling away all but five of Lady Everard's admirers, and every girl who needed a partner had one for the next set. All Imogene required was one for herself. She put her hand to the closest broad shoulder. The man turned.
And Imogene froze. She recognized the platinum hair held away from his lean face in an old-fashioned queue at the back of his neck, the sharp angles of cheek and chin. Instead of the black cloak that had enveloped him the last time he'd called, he wore a tailored black coat and breeches with a black-striped waistcoat and an elegantly tied cravat. Those dark eyes had looked merciless as the footman had sent him away for the third time. Now they were merely curious.
"There you are," she exclaimed. "I believe you wanted to dance."
One pale brow went up. "Forgive me. Have we met?"
"We must have met," Imogene insisted, taking his arm and threading hers through it. My, but he was strong; his arm felt like a mahogany banister under hers. "How else would I know you wished to dance?"
His mouth quirked. "How else indeed." He glanced over his shoulder at Lady Everard, then settled Imo-gene's arm closer. For a moment, she had the oddest feeling of being trapped. It shouldn't have felt so pleasant.
"Very well, then, my dear," he said, voice low and warm, like the purr of a tiger she'd seen in the Tower zoo. "Let us rise with the notes of the song and dance upon its joy."
The phrase sounded familiar, but she couldn't place it. In fact, as Imogene strolled with him toward the line of dancers, she was very much aware of another sound, for her heart had started drumming again.
Vaughn Everard stood across the line from the young lady who had accosted him. It wasn't the first time he'd been approached. He was a published poet, and some ladies imagined they had been his muse or understood his character because they'd read his work. A few even sought him for his reputation as a duelist, as if they thrilled to flirt with danger. A frown was often enough to send them scampering back to their mamas.
But not this young lady, he sensed. The look in those light jade eyes was challenging, and even the chestnut color of her curls, springing on either side of her creamy cheeks, seemed to crackle with energy. The grin on her peach-colored lips could only be called mischievous. Couple all that with a lush figure that showed to advantage in her simple, high-waisted white satin gown, and he found himself quite disposed to dance.
She looked to be a little older than his cousin Sa-mantha, perhaps nineteen or twenty. Certainly younger than his twenty-six years and just as certainly a lady, or the high-stickler Mayweathers would never have allowed her to join them at their stuffy little ball. He had only been invited, he was sure, because he was one of three guardians to a beautiful young heiress making her debut in London Society. The Mayweathers coveted a relationship with the new Lady Everard. They were willing to suffer her ne'er-do-well cousin if necessary.
But why had this young lady insisted on a dance? She was watching him as if she wasn't entirely sure what to do with him as he bowed and she curtsied to the first measures of the music. Testing her, he kept his gaze locked with hers until they had passed shoulder to shoulder in the center of the lines. She did not look away, but her cheeks turned the same delectable color as her lips as she moved back into place.
When she placed her hands over his for the turn, he let his fingers caress her palms. She raised her pointed chin but did not jerk away.
Interesting. If she was bent on an assignation, she should be responding in kind. If she was a green girl, she'd be dashing from the set in embarrassment. As it was, her assessing look said she didn't intend to fall for nonsense. For some reason, that made him want to behave like a gentleman for once.
And that would be a mistake.
He had no right to the title; his grandfather and father had made that abundantly clear. And his purpose at this ball had no noble motive. He'd been sure his quarry would attend, yet he'd searched every room, and Robert Devary, the Marquess of Widmore, was nowhere to be found.
It had been the same everywhere he'd gone. The marquess was never home to callers, never at his club when he'd been expected, never at his solicitor's place of business, Tattersall's Horse Emporium or even Parliament when it was in session. Vaughn had hired a boy to follow him; the lad had never returned.
He'd lurked across the street from the house; his lordship went out the back. He'd loitered in the alley near the stables; the fellow escaped out the front! He'd even tried stalking the corridors of Whitehall, hoping to catch the marquess between meetings with the Admiralty or the War Office, where he advised on matters with the French, and still the man managed to avoid him. And the other members of government looked less than kindly on questions raised about their colleague.
But if he couldn't solve the mystery of the marquess tonight, at least he might discover more about his pretty partner. When they reached the end of the line and were forced to stand out for a cycle, he said, "You, madam, are a cipher."
She batted her cinnamon lashes. "Me? What of you, all in black? Are you a wraith, sir, flitting about the ballroom in search of prey?"
"If I was I would certainly search you out."
"Ah, but somehow I thought you were out for something larger, an earl or a marquess, perhaps."
Did she know? How could she? The reason for his quest was a closely held family secret, and even his family had been known to try to dissuade him from approaching the marquess. "You wouldn't happen to have one in your pocket, would you?" he asked. "It would make my work much easier."
She spread her hands as if to display her shiny gown to him. "No pockets, alas. And what would you want with an old marquess anyway?"
She had no idea. He leaned closer. "At the moment, I couldn't care less. Come now, admit it. We've never met."
Her light eyes twinkled as she dropped her arms. "Really, sir, I should take offense that you don't remember me."
Vaughn smiled as he straightened. "Forgive me. Any lady whose beauty outshines the stars should be impossible to forget."
Her smile grew. "There now, you see what a charming gentleman you can be when you put your mind to it?"
Vaughn took her hands and pulled her back into the dance. "A momentary aberration brought about solely by your presence, my dear."
Still, he tried to treat her with the utmost civility as they progressed back down the line. It was hard to recall his purpose in London with her gazing at him that way. She smiled with her whole bodyeyes alight and crinkled around the corners, chin lifted, body leaning forward as if she were about to impart a delightful secret. He found himself leaning forward just to hear it.
The set ended far too soon for him. As the music faded, ladies curtsied and men bowed. He didn't want to move, didn't want the moment to pass, didn't want to return to his dark pursuit of hunting a killer and making him pay. For these few precious seconds, he could pretend he was a typical young gentleman dancing with the loveliest lady in the room.