The Season

Page 15


Alex shook her head. “I’m afraid nothing of note. I’ve known Freddie for years. He and Will were at school together. He was just being kind and making certain that I had my dance card filled.” She peered over her friend’s shoulder through the plant to see the object of their conversation offer one of the grande dames of the ton a glass of lemonade, with a bold grin. “He is charming, though.” She paused. “And fun.”
“And quite attractive,” Ella chimed in.
Alex turned to her friends. “And an inveterate rake.”
Vivi nodded. “Truer words were never spoken.” The young Earl of Stanhope’s reputation preceded him. “But if anyone’s safe with Stanhope, it’s you, Alex. Your brothers would have his head if he overstepped his bounds.”
“Speaking of…” Ella was peering through the fern, “Your brothers have arrived. All of them.” Laughter edged into her voice. “And they’re being swarmed.”
“Really?” Alex turned and joined Ella at her lookout post. And there they were, all three of her brothers surrounded by a gaggle of cloying mothers and decorated daughters, all clamoring for an introduction.
Nick, ever the gentleman, was doing his best to appear interested. Kit was looking terrified, eyes darting this way and that, obviously desperate to escape. It was Will, however, who caused a giggle to escape Alex. As the future duke, he was surrounded on all sides by eager females. But the eldest Stafford wasn’t the young star of the War Office for nothing. Alex could see him working out a strategy for retreat even as he was enchantée-ing his way through the crowd. Within seconds, he had backed up to another gentleman, deftly shifted the attention from himself to his unsuspecting mark, and moved away toward their mother, who was waving him over.
“Remarkable,” Alex whispered. It was a tactical disengagement that would have made Wellington proud. Taking a moment to admire her brother’s skill at dealing with the ton, Alex made a mental note to ask him for a tutorial when next she saw him. Redirecting her gaze to the mass of femininity he had escaped, Alex waited for Will’s replacement to turn his face toward her. She wondered who could so easily capture the attentions originally directed at an heir to a dukedom—or was Will just that skilled with such evasive maneuvers? Whoever it was stood at the same height as Nick and Kit, towering above the women around him. The way he was positioned made him impossible to recognize, but Alex couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders and blond hair falling attractively over the collar of his waistcoat.
Alex checked herself. Since when did hair fall attractively? Irritated with herself for noting something so inane, she turned away from her spying to resume her conversation with Ella and Vivi, who were consulting their dance cards.
“Are you ready to reenter the fray?” She asked a touch too quickly—hoping that her friends wouldn’t notice.
The girls agreed it was time to come out of hiding, for fear someone might find their spot and ruin it for future nights. As casually as possible, Vivi exited the alcove, followed by Ella, with Alex bringing up the rear.
The madness began immediately.
“Lady Vivian! I thought perhaps you had left! I was nigh perishing at the thought.” Vivi was virtually accosted by the eldest, and one would hope most dramatic, son of Viscount Sudberry.
Ella found herself instantly distracted by Lord Sumner. “My dear Lady Eleanor, I have been searching for you everywhere. Never say you haven’t a free dance on your card?”
“Lady Alexandra! I believe this is my dance!” Alex turned toward the nasal voice and, hiding her grimace, pasted a bright smile on her face. “Why, Lord Waring, I believe you are right.” Turning back to her friends, she mouthed, Rescue me! Vivi leaned in close and whispered, “Meet us on the other side of the room after the cotillion.” With no time to respond, Alex was escorted to the dance floor.
For the next few minutes, she gave special thanks to her maker that country dances were the rage in London this year—the cotillion involved multiple sets of paired partners, so she was able to, for the most part, avoid tedious conversation with Lord Waring. When, at the end of the dance, he suggested that they take a turn about the ballroom, she swallowed a quick NO! and instead replied, “That sounds lovely. However, I find that I am quite parched. Would you mind terribly escorting me to the refreshment rooms?”
Instead, eager to please, Waring offered to take her directly to Ella and Vivi, who had somehow escaped their suitors and were deep in conversation on the sidelines of the ballroom. From there, he insisted, he would fetch her lemonade—and anything else she required—for fear she would find herself too parched from the walk all the way to the refreshments. Recognizing a boon when she saw one, Alex swallowed her snide response to his theory that an additional ten feet of walking would put her out of commission for the evening. Graciously accepting Lord Waring’s offer, Alex refocused her attention on her friends and the man with whom they were conversing.
It was the same man she had noticed through the potted fern. He still had his back to her, but she was getting to know that side of him quite well. His shoulders were broader still than they had seemed when she was spying on him. They were certainly a defining characteristic, and she noted with appreciation the way his tailor had fitted his black jacket to them like a second skin. Taking in the cut of the garment drew her attention back to his hair, which she realized was a more golden shade of blond than she had first thought.
She mentally shook herself, growing irritated with her own idiocy. She’d spent most of her life around men and, from the looks of him, this one was no different from her brothers in age or station. Why was she being so silly? Who was he, anyway? How did he know Vivi and Ella?