|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.42(d)|
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The occasion of one's debut was an odd mixture of excitement, fear, boredom, and an overwhelming desire to toss one's breakfast. But The Honorable Judith Leslie had never been one to waste food, so her breakfast remained where it ought, and she curtsied to King William and his queen without mishap.
She executed an uncharacteristically graceful turn and was led out of the presence of the monarchs. At the age of nineteen, she was older than all of this year's debs, and at least a head taller, a fact most of them were all too happy to mention.
"Does the air up there smell different, I wonder?" one of them, Lady Cassandra, said to another as Judith passed. The eldest daughter of the Duke of Bothwell, Cassandra was pert, pretty, and petite with an English roses and cream complexion and had been bullying Judith at every opportunity.
Judith was — as her mother liked to say with a surprising lack of irony — statuesque, with a ruddy complexion and auburn hair that tended to escape from its pins. Being half Scottish, she often thought she was better suited to a Highland sheep farm than a London ballroom.
Judith's mother, Lady Grangemore, caught up to her and gave Lady Cassandra a withering glare that only made the snooty girls snicker.
"Ignore them," she said to Judith.
Judith had been tempted to elbow Cassandra in the head but was, of course, far too well-mannered to do it. "I always do," she lied.
"You were marvelous in there, my dear. The other girls appeared mere sparrows in comparison to your swan-like beauty."
Her mother spent far too much time reading novels. "Thank you, Mama, but I'd hardly call myself swan-like."
"Nonsense. Of course you are." Lady Grangemore sniffed in dismissal of her daughter's protest and surveyed the buffet table, heavy with food. "What on earth is that creation, do you think? It seems to be moving." She pointed to an ice sculpture on the table — a giant tree, graced with tiny birds in such striking detail they appeared to be flying.
"The palace spares no expense for the start of the Season, I suppose. Although I can't imagine how they'll keep it from melting all over the sweetmeats. It's unseasonably warm today, don't you agree, Mama?"
"Hmph," her mother said, clearly uninterested in the weather. "Shall we go, my dear? We do have your own ball preparations to finish. Such a coup to be able to schedule it for today. Lady Bothwell practically spat as I walked by her this morning." Lady Grangemore didn't rub her hands together in maniacal glee, but her fingers twitched with anticipation.
Judith didn't know how her mother, a viscountess from Derbyshire, had managed to upstage the Duchess of Bothwell in scheduling the very first ball of the season, but she did know her mother had been planning the debutante ball for her only daughter since the day she was born. A woman so motivated is not to be underestimated.
She listened to her mother's prattle with half an ear as their carriage rumbled away from the palace toward their townhouse in Mayfair. Judith missed their home in Derbyshire, with her horses, her dogs, a society of people she'd known her entire life. Since arriving in London two months before, she'd been poked and prodded within an inch of her life as seamstresses measured and fitted God only knew how many new dresses and ensembles. As Judith didn't have many friends in London, she spent a lot of time alone, reading, playing the piano, or dragging her maid on long walks through Hyde Park. The London cook wasn't amenable to having her help in the kitchen, unlike the cook at home, so she didn't even have baking to divert her.
She was bored out of her head.
"Judith," Lady Grangemore said, gently swatting Judith with her reticule. "You haven't heard a word I said, have you?"
"Sorry, Mama." Judith smiled, tried to muster more enthusiasm, for her mother's sake.
"Never mind. I am sure you must be exhausted. I know I didn't sleep a wink before my presentation to King George. Why don't you take a little rest before the ball?"
Judith, who'd slept quite soundly, nodded gratefully and disappeared to her bedroom once they arrived home. There was a book she wanted to finish.
* * *
Peter Tenwick, Lord Caxton, stood at attention before his father's giant mahogany desk and braced himself. Ordinarily a pleasant, non- confrontational sort of man, the Earl of Longley was in a decidedly different temper today. He'd just received a report of Peter's behavior last evening; not from Peter himself, of course, but from one of the earl's cronies who delighted in reporting the misdeeds of the younger members of the peerage to their parents. The earl was, to put it mildly, rather put out.
"For God's sake, Peter! Caught swimming, nude, in Hyde Park? You're nearly thirty!"
"I fail to see what my age has to do with this," Peter said.
"It has everything to do with this. You are my son and heir. You still behave like a fool a decade younger, and you haven't so much as looked for a suitable mate."
"Mate? You make me sound like one of your hounds."
Red in the face, nearly apoplectic, the earl took a deep breath. He rubbed a hand over his thinning light hair, his shoulders sinking a bit in resignation. "You know very well what I mean, boy. I am too old for this. I should have had at least four grandchildren to toddle on my knee by now. You need to find a suitable debutante, marry her, and conceive an heir."
Peter helped himself to a tot of brandy from the sideboard. "I have never met a single deb I could pass the time of day with, Father, let alone ... anything else."
His father's brow pinched in a scowl, his face paled to a pinkish hue. He waved a hand, exasperated. "You don't have to talk to her, Peter. Your mother, God rest her soul, and I barely spoke, and we had four children."
Peter rolled his eyes. Lord and Lady Longley had been very ill suited in temperament, but his mother had assuredly been a good breeder. Unfortunately, three of the four had been girls.
His father wasn't finished. "Today, Peter, or I'll cut you off. Don't think I won't." Given the determined set of his father's jaw, he was quite serious indeed. A niggle of worry lodged in Peter's belly.
Fine. He would start looking, but his father's ultimatum didn't require that he find one. He had no interest in marrying anyone; he'd seen too many of his friends fall prey to shrewish fortune hunters, and his own parents had been so miserable together he saw no need to follow suit.
And he had just the thing to ensure no one would take him seriously.CHAPTER 2
Judith was exhausted.
Her feet throbbed, her cheeks ached from maintaining a perpetual smile, and her eyes stung from the smoke in the air generated by thousands of candles and gentlemen's cigars. She'd danced every dance, and her head was swimming with the names of her partners. Thank goodness for her dance card, since she'd be required to list them all for her mother in order of preference.
Not that her mother hadn't been paying very close attention anyway. She'd probably memorized the rank and income of each of them.
Judith spotted an empty chair along the wall and made a beeline for it, hoping to soothe the feet that had just been trodden upon by Lord Something-or-Other of the Yorkshire Something-or-Others. It was a delicate balance, moving purposefully through the crowd without inadvertently cutting Lady Whosit, elbowing the Dowager Countess Whatsit, or attracting the unwelcome attentions of a pimple-faced lordling. She was nearly to her goal when there was a commotion at the entrance to the ballroom. Judith glanced at her mother's grandfather clock. It was four o'clock in the morning — not at all late to be at a ball, but quite unfashionably late to be arriving at one.
A man stood in the doorway. Tall and rugged, he was, in a word, astonishing. Fashionably mussed as if he'd just risen from bed, his dark blond hair hung over one eye, and he wore a self-satisfied smile suggesting he hadn't been alone there. But it was his waistcoat which drew everyone's attention.
Having abandoned his post at the ballroom door due to the lateness of the hour, the butler sped to the newcomer's side. After a whispered conversation, he turned to the assembly.
"Viscount Caxton," he said in a tone conveying both surprise and disapproval.
Lord Caxton wended his way through the ballroom, nodding to many of the guests. He plucked a glass of champagne off a passing tray and stood near the mantel, his hooded gaze observing those who were observing him. Judith vaguely noticed her feet — somehow no longer sore — move of their own accord until she was standing just in front of him. She blinked, as much to clear her suddenly foggy brain as to relieve her eyes of the sight of his rather mesmerizing coat. She didn't think she'd ever seen so many colors and fabrics in one place, not even at her modiste's. He winked at her, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
He took her hand and bowed over it with a flourish, his hair curling around his bright purple collar. He kissed her hand, straightened, and winked again.
His touch sent tingles screaming up her arm. Judith was so startled she burst out the first thing that came into her head. "Wherever did you find that atrocious coat?"
The crowd surrounding him began to laugh, the ladies tittering behind their fans. Heat flooded Judith's cheeks, but she was rescued from further embarrassment by her mother, who appeared at her side visibly quivering with indignation.
"My lord. Have you been introduced to my daughter?"
"I have not, but I should very much like to be, if this vision before me is she."
Lady Grangemore cocked her head but did not immediately introduce Judith, a notable social gaffe most uncharacteristic of her. Finally, she said, "Lord Caxton, may I introduce my daughter, The Honorable Judith Leslie."
Judith observed this exchange with wide eyes before her mother elbowed her hard in the ribs. Resisting a childish urge to poke right back, Judith instead curtsied to Lord Caxton. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, my lord."
"And I yours." He bowed again, but Judith kept her hand safely at her side this time.
"I don't believe I received your acceptance of our invitation, Lord Caxton." Lady Grangemore straightened to her full height, regarding Caxton with a rather icy stare.
"Please forgive me, my lady. I did not believe I would be able to attend due to another engagement, but there was an unexpected change in my plans." Lord Caxton's smile was engaging, designed to charm even the most hostile mama. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be doing much for Judith's.
"How nice for us," she said, in a tone suggesting quite the opposite. "Come along, Judith. There is someone else whom you must meet." An obvious lie, since she'd spent an hour in the receiving line meeting every single attendee. Her mother grabbed her arm in a fierce grip and tugged her away from Lord Caxton. She glimpsed over her shoulder, only to have him wink at her again.
She nearly tripped as her mother all but dragged her through the ballroom. "Mama, stop. What on earth is the matter with you?"
"You should have nothing to do with that man. He's a rake of the worst sort." Her mother wrestled Judith into a corner behind a potted plant and finally released her.
"Why did you invite him, then?" she asked, rubbing her arm.
"Because it would have been rude not to do so, but I dinna for a moment think he'd come. He hasna attended a ball in years."
Lady Grangemore's native Scottish brogue only slipped into her speech when she was highly flustered or upset. Judith scrunched her face to study her mother, wondering what would cause such a reaction to one young man. Noticing her mother's flushed cheeks, she decided it was best to leave the subject for the moment. "And it wasn't rude to drag me away, leaving him standing there on his own?"
Her mother took a deep breath, and the redness in her cheeks faded. She waved her hand in dismissal. "He obviously cares little for social mores. Look at that ridiculous waistcoat he's wearing," she said in a harsh whisper. "It must have a dozen different colors."
Judith peered around the plant, only to find him staring at her, an impish grin plastered upon his outrageously handsome face. "Ouch!" Her mother had grabbed her arm once more, pulling her back.
Studying Judith, she said, "You seem tired, darling. Perhaps it's time for you to retire. It's been such a long day."
Curiosity overcame fatigue. "I'm not in the least tired, Mama. I believe there is one more dance, correct? And I just happen to have it open." In an act of defiance she'd never even have considered at the start of this evening, she ducked away before her mother could stop her and strode back to Lord Caxton, who remained alone, sipping champagne.
She took a deep breath. "Lord Caxton, I realize this is terribly forward of me," she squeaked. She cleared her throat, pushing her voice back down to her normal deeper tone. "I wonder if you might consider doing me the kindest of favors."
He nodded, his expression amused. "If it is within my power, I should be delighted."
"There is one dance remaining in the evening, and I find myself without a partner. As this is, after all, my debut, I should be most embarrassed to be a wallflower."
"Perish the thought. Although I cannot imagine a more attractive bloom, whether you are in motion or not."
Judith flushed and nearly considered abandoning this ridiculous flirtation. "Oh, my." Having exhausted her store of clever repartees, rather limited to begin with, she feverishly waved her fan in front of her face, hoping she was sending an appropriate message.
He laughed, not unkindly, and tipped her head up with a finger under her chin. "What an innocent you are. I should be delighted to dance with you." He glanced at something over her shoulder. "But we should take to the floor quickly before your mama comes back with reinforcements."
As the beginning strains of a waltz filled the air, Lord Caxton swept her onto the dance floor. He was a large man, but she was tall enough that they fit together as if two halves of a whole. He flashed a surprised grin at her, as if he were thinking the same thing. She shivered as he placed his arm around her waist, her skin tingling under his hand at the small of her back.
As they spun around the room, Judith caught glimpses of her mother on the edge of the dance floor, lips pursed tightly together, rising and falling on her toes, fists opening and closing at her side as if she were getting ready to punch someone. Judith could almost see the war between propriety and preservation taking place in her head.
The music slowed, and the waltz came to an end. Lord Caxton removed his hand from Judith's back, leaving her oddly bereft. He kissed her hand once more, bowed gracefully over it.
"Thank you for a delightful dance, Miss Leslie. I do hope we'll meet again."
"Um. Yes, thank you. I mean, you're welcome." As soon as the words left her lips, she wanted to call them back, but he was gone, his shoulders vibrating as he laughed, she was sure, at her idiotic response. She would not have been disappointed if the floor opened up and swallowed her whole.
A fate made even more attractive when her mother's talons dug into her shoulder.
"Come. With. Me." Lady Grangemore's voice was low, nearly inaudible, signaling anger so profound it didn't require words.
Judith huffed out a breath, then obediently followed her mother to the front hall, where they bid goodnight to each remaining guest. As the last one left the house, Lady Grangemore turned to Judith.
"We will speak in the morning." She paused, held up a long finger, and shook her head. "No, the evening. I will require an entire day to overcome my desire to ship you back to Derbyshire on the mail coach."
She stalked up the stairs, leaving Judith in the hall, imprints of her mother's nails on her skin and the gentleman's hand tingling in the small of her back.
* * *
Peter entered the breakfast room the next morning feeling more energized than he had in months. A vision of Miss Leslie danced through his brain, the smell of her unique jasmine and rose scent still lingering in his senses. And the feel of her against him, taller than any woman with whom he'd ever danced — she'd fit within his arms as if they'd been designed for each other.
His father was hunched over the newspaper, a cup of tea at his elbow and congealing eggs on his plate.
The earl looked up in surprise, glanced at the mantel clock, then back at Peter. "It's only nine o'clock. What's wrong?"
Peter shrugged. "Nothing is wrong. I wasn't in the mood to sleep in."
"I know very well you didn't get in until five o'clock. You tripped over the table in the upstairs hall and woke me up. Drunk, I suppose." Lord Longley grunted and returned to his paper.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Treasure Her Heart"
Copyright © 2018 Marin Ritter.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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