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Never appear to be too captivated by a gentleman, particularly if it is true. Revealing your weakness for him will give him the upper hand, and a woman needs all the power she can muster if she is to triumph.
—An Anonymous Lady, Advice to Young Ladies on Capturing a Husband
London, September 1817
“Eleanor, my dear, the worst has happened! Wrexham is here.”
Her heart leaping at her aunt’s disconcerting news, Lady Eleanor Pierce froze on the sidelines of the crowded hall. “Here? Tonight? At Carlton House?”
“Indeed. His arrival was just announced.” Elea?nor’s proper aunt and chaperone, Lady Beldon, made a sour face. “The nerve of him! He should have the decency to respect your sensibilities.”
Eleanor agreed that Damon Stafford, Viscount Wrexham, had a great deal of nerve. In truth, Damon was the boldest man of her acquaintance. But she had braced her sensibilities against the impact of seeing him again—or so she’d believed until just this moment.
Eleanor smiled in an effort to pretend composure and to slow her all too rapid heartbeat. “I daresay Lord Wrexham has a right to attend Prinny’s fete, Aunt Beatrix. No doubt he was invited, just as we were.”
George, Prince of Wales and currently England’s Regent, regularly entertained at Carlton House, his garishly grand London residence. And Lady Beldon was sometimes included on the guest list, since her late husband had been an intimate of the pleasure-loving Regent’s set.
Tonight the overheated mansion was filled with a crush of elegant gentry and aristocrats. Yet a surreptitious glance around the thronged hall told Eleanor that the charming rake who had once won her heart and then trampled on it was nowhere in sight.
“You make too much of the matter,” Eleanor murmured, hiding her relief. “Wrexham is perfectly at liberty to move about society as he pleases.”
Her Aunt Beatrix gave her a piercing stare. “Surely you do not mean to defend him? After he treated you so abominably?”
“No, certainly not. But I am resigned to meeting him again. It must happen eventually. He has been in London for a sennight, and we move in similar circles.”
Lady Beldon shook her head in disgust, then studied her niece more closely. “Perhaps we should take our leave, Eleanor. I will tender our excuses to Prinny—”
“I have no intention of running from Lord Wrexham, dearest Aunt.”
“Then you must prepare yourself. He may appear at any moment.”
Nodding distractedly, Eleanor drew a deep breath. She was as prepared as she would ever be to encounter the wickedly charming nobleman who had been her betrothed.
She’d had several days’ warning that Damon had returned to London after a two-year absence, since Lady Beldon’s friends were eager to keep her abreast of society gossip. Eleanor had carefully planned what she would say to him, and how she would act. She would be gracious and cool and completely indifferent, showing him common politeness but no more.
“I am capable of facing him with equanimity,” she avowed, her calm assertion belying the butterflies rioting in her stomach.
Aunt Beatrix, however, was neither convinced nor willing to excuse his lordship’s past sins. “You should not be compelled to face that scoundrel. Were he a true gentleman, he would have the good manners to stay away.”
“He has stayed away,” Eleanor said with a dry edge to her tone. “For two years.”
“Even so, his absence was not long enough! Indeed, I think he should be banned from polite society entirely.”
Regrettably, Damon’s crime against her didn’t quite justify so severe a punishment, Eleanor reflected. “I suspect banishment might be a bit too harsh, darling Auntie.”
“Not in the least. And I will never forgive myself for introducing you to that wicked rogue.”
“You are not to blame. You did not actually introduce us, if you will recall.”
The elder woman waved an elegant hand in dismissal. “Wrexham met you at my annual house party, which amounts to the same thing as an introduction. Had I not welcomed him into our home, you would never have been exposed to heartbreak and ridicule. But he was a friend of Marcus’s. How could we know he would turn out to be such a libertine?”
How indeed? Eleanor wondered silently.
Her beloved older brother Marcus had thought very highly of Damon until the eventful dissolution of her betrothal—as had she. With his stirring good looks and his reckless, devil-may-care charm, Damon was every young lady’s illicit fantasy, and every matron’s worry.
As far as motherly natures went, Beatrix Attree, Viscountess Beldon, harbored very few nurturing instincts. Yet she’d taken in Eleanor after her parents’ deaths when she was but ten years old, and had been her chaperone ever since. And Beatrix loved Eleanor as much as she was capable of loving anyone.
Her ladyship was an aristocrat to the core, and she had strict notions of what was proper for the nobility. In the beginning she’d made allowances for Lord Wrexham, despite his rather wild reputation, because he held an illustrious title that went back several hundred years and a fortune that was even larger than Eleanor’s.
For her own part, Eleanor had cared little for Damon’s title or wealth. It was the nobleman himself who inspired her ardor. The first moment they met, she’d felt a lightning bolt of attraction for him, as well as a connection she rarely experienced with any other man.
Falling in love with him had been ridiculously easy.
Of course, her foolishness in succumbing to his irresistible allure could possibly be excused by her relative youth at the time. She was only nineteen then, and in her girlish heart she had yearned for a wildly romantic love. A suitor who made her burn, who made her feel feverish and desired, just as Damon did.
She’d been spellbound for those few short weeks of their whirlwind courtship and engagement, believing they were ideally matched, that Damon was the man of her dreams. She had expected—hoped—to live with him happily ever after as his wife. Until that fateful morning two years ago when she spied him driving in Hyde Park with his beautiful mistress, not only not bothering to hide his affair but actually flaunting it.
Feeling grievously hurt and betrayed, Eleanor had immediately terminated their engagement and vowed to have nothing more to do with Damon. He had broken her heart as well as severely embarrassing her and savaging her pride. Even now, she couldn’t quell her lingering resentment. Yet she refused to cower at the thought of facing him—
“Well,” Lady Beldon announced, breaking into her niece’s thoughts, “if you insist on staying tonight, you would do well to keep Prince Lazzara by your side in the event Wrexham has the gall to approach you.”
“I shall, Aunt. His highness only stepped away to fetch some refreshments for us.”
An Italian nobleman, Principe Antonio Lazzara di Terrasini had come to England in the company of his elder distant cousin, il Signor Umberto Vecchi, who was a diplomat to the British court. Reportedly the prince was in the market for a bride and was considering Lady Eleanor for the position.
Eleanor well knew that her chief attractions had little to do with her character or intellect. She was a notable heiress in her own right, due to the extensive fortune left to her by her mother. She was also the daughter of a baron, and now the sister of an earl, since her elder brother Marcus had recently inherited the Danvers earldom from his own distant relation.
However, she hadn’t yet decided how seriously she wished to be considered as Prince Lazzara’s future princess. Admittedly she was attracted to him. His sensual voice and melting dark eyes were the very essence of romance. He was also handsome, engaging, charming, and witty—and from all reports, as much of a rake as Damon had ever been.
And after her disastrous betrothal to Damon— followed by a second, even briefer betrothal to another nobleman shortly afterward—Eleanor was adamant that the next time she became engaged, it would be for good. More crucially, she would only marry a man whom she loved and who loved her in return.
Just then a hush fell over one end of the hall. Eleanor suspected that Prinny had entered with his entourage. But when her aunt stiffened and muttered “Speak of the devil” under her breath, Eleanor realized that it was not only His Royal Highness who had attracted attention.
Damon Stafford, Viscount Wrexham, stood beside the Regent, drawing all eyes, including hers.
The company began bowing and scraping fawningly to Prinny, while Lord Wrexham casually surveyed the elite gathering—and the gathering returned the favor.