Elizabeth Asherwood entered the Duke of Lincolnshire's ballroom, her name announced by His Grace's ancient butler in a quavering, nearly inaudible voice.
"Thank you, Rees," said Elizabeth, fighting the temptation to put a hand out to steady the old man. She scanned the crowd for Penelope Perrin, her best friend, before descending the few steps to the dance floor proper. Miss Asherwood took a long breath. 'Twas her first ball in over a year, and she was determined to put sadness aside and enjoy herself.
You cannot mourn forever. Elizabeth heard her friend's voice in her head and smiled. Penelope had supported her without fail after her father's death, and only in the last month had she urged Miss Asherwood to think of returning to society. The Lincolnshire's ball--the event of the fortnight--had finally convinced Lizzie to give in.
The duke's ballroom was well laid out, a spacious floor surrounded by a colonnade on three sides, and garden doors, already flung open against the heat of the crowd, making up the whole of the fourth. Behind the columns there were alcoves full of chairs, and tables laden with punch and food, which were being taken full advantage of by both the men and women of the haut ton.
One would think, thought Elizabeth as she watched them, that none of us has eaten for days.
The orchestra was taking its rest, so quiet ruled for the moment, but quiet of only a relative sort. Hundreds of people conversing in the confines of a ballroom made a unique, unmistakable sound, a growling sea of voices punctuated with shouts of male laughter.
Where was Penny? Elizabeth pushed her way through the throng of people waiting for the music to begin again. The guests were a cheerful group, the men in fine dark wools, the women a riot of satins and lace and sweeps of tulle. They gossiped and chattered, seeking out partners, jostling each other over to the food and drink, and back. She smiled and curtseyed and greeted those she knew, hoping to find Penny before Geoffrey arrived to claim the first dance. She was not disappointed.
Her friends were gathered in one alcove, away from the watchful eyes of the dragons--the older ladies of the ton--and immersed in animated discussion.
"Clarence Lafferty is making a cake of himself over Miss Stephens," said Penelope Perrin, when Elizabeth gained her side. Penny was the red-head of the group, tall and slender with a scattering of freckles, and dressed tonight in a light, sea-green silk. "I shouldn't call that a surprise," said Elizabeth.
"No, but his engagement to the Campersdown chit is about to be announced," said Helen Wexcomb, another acquaintance. She added, "next week."
"Oh, dear," said Lizzie.
"'Oh, dear' is right. She'll take him anyway, I suppose."
"Do you really think so?"
Lady Helen shrugged. "Why not?"
Elizabeth frowned. "Well, clearly he doesn't love her. And I don't see how she could love him."
"I'm sure she doesn't," said Penny.
"He's very wealthy," said Susannah Ware.
Lizzie rolled her eyes. "And the stupidest man in England."
"He spends most of his time in Leicestershire. Once she has supplied him with a son, I imagine Lady Lafferty will prefer London."
Penny was looking back at the entrance to the ballroom, frowning.
"I worry about Rees," she said. "Do you suppose he will survive the night?"
"I wonder that Lord Hutchens doesn't allow him to retire."
Lady Helen laughed. "The duke? He's begged him to retire," she said. "Rees refuses."
"Well then, what's to be done?"
Elizabeth had followed Penelope's gaze to the entrance; her eye was now caught by a tall, dark-haired man who stood a little apart. His features were strong and chiseled and his hair was arranged simply, tied back in a ribbon.
Dark, serious eyes. And a bit older than the group of young Corinthians nearby, Elizabeth thought. But not by much.
"Have you been introduced to that gentleman?" she asked Penny, pointing cautiously with her fan.
Her friend thought for a few moments. "Isn't that . . . ? No, I don't remember. But I've seen him before. He seems to attend a great many balls."
"That," said Susannah Ware, "is Lord Peregrine Blakeley." She laughed. "The biggest rake in all London."
"Posh," said Lady Helen. They had all heard Miss Ware make this pronouncement too often, on behalf of other men, to be impressed.
"He doesn't seem to be actively seeking out any ladies at the moment," said Penny.
"Just wait," said Susannah.
"He works for the Foreign Office," said Lady Helen. "Lord Teagrave says he is a complete bungler, but they cannot dismiss him."
"Well, he's terribly rich, for one thing--" said Lady Helen.
"--and he's bedded everyone's wife," added Susannah. She lowered her voice. "All the ministers. So they're afraid he . . . knows things."
"Why would someone who's terribly rich want work at which he is deemed incompetent?" asked Elizabeth.
Miss Ware shrugged. "Lud. Who knows why men do anything?"
The orchestra began to tune, and the chaos of the ballroom devolved into couples. The longways formed, a row of laughing, animated pairs who added and subtracted themselves, seemingly at random, into an ever-growing line.
"His Grace certainly adores jasmine," said Penny, wrinkling her nose.
"Oh, is that what I'm smelling?" said Susannah. "I thought perhaps Lady Marbrey was nearby."
"Mmm. What do you think of Lord Hertford's breeches tonight?"
This earned a chorus of appreciative, conspiratorial laughter. Jeremy Hertford was often described as having the best legs in England, and he was accustomed to wearing the tightest of skin-tight breeches. This pair was a soft fawn, and showed every ripple of muscle.
"Oh!" said Susannah, sending a longing, doe-eyed glance in Lord Hertford's direction. "Just imagine what they must feel like!"
"I danced with him at Lady Pensieve's this past week," said Penny. "One's powers of imagination are not required."
"What about Lord Fancot?" asked Helen. "He'll be doing the rounds this evening, I'm sure."
"A bore," said Penny. "Too chatty by half. A man ought to take time for thought."
"His chin is weak," said Susannah. "Perhaps a beard would help."
"A beard!" This was a shocking proposal. Gentlemen were clean-shaven these days.
"I am only saying--"
Elizabeth listened with half an ear to the conversation, finding her gaze drawn back to the dark man. He didn't appear a bungler, she thought. But what would one look like, after all?
Once his eyes turned her way. She raised her fan and looked aside, embarrassed. But the man--Lord Blakeley?--didn't seem to take her in. A lady had now claimed his attention, and Elizabeth gave a small, rueful smile.
Adelaide Caldwell, is it? she thought, feeling a pang of . . . envy. Mrs. Caldwell was a youngish widow with an active social life and an unapologetic penchant for rich men. She wore scandalously low decolletage and her conversation often shocked, but society accepted her, the dragons notwithstanding. Penny always claimed that the gentlemen simply refused to let her go.
You're being ridiculous, Miss Asherwood told herself. You've never even been introduced.
"Lizzie," said Penny, suddenly. "Here's Geoff."
Elizabeth turned around. Lord Geoffrey Winthrop was making his way through the crowd. She smiled, and reminded herself of how happy she was to see him.