"Gareth, my dear, do try for a little more enthusiasm. This is a rout after all, not a funeral, and it is Lady St. John's rout at that. There is not the least reason to be so Friday faced. Do look as though you are enjoying yourself. You promised you would." The Marchioness of Harwood tightened her grip on her son's arm as they mounted the magnificent marble staircase in the countess's splendid mansion in Grosvenor Square.
"Yes, Mama, I shall--" Angrily he bit off the meek reply. For years he had responded unquestioningly to her every whim with "Yes, Mama. Of course, Mama," too well trained to do anything but her bidding, catering to her every desire just as his father had done, but no longer. He was finished with all that. Now he was head of the family, Gareth de Vere, sixth Marquess of Harwood. And he did not want to be here. "No, Mama. I promised you I would escort you, but I would never have been so rash as to promise to enjoy myself."
He loathed ton functions such as this, the crush of people elegantly attired, expressions of polite boredom carefully pasted on their faces while their eyes restlessly scanned the fashionable throng as his were doing now, seeking something, anything, to make this night different from countless other nights at one select gathering or another during the height of the Season.
As they crossed the threshold Gareth's gaze swept the brilliantly lit ballroom. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of her, slightly off to one side, standing next to a marble pillar. She was exquisite in a way that made every other woman there seem overdressed and tawdry. Dark hair threaded with a rope of pearls and arranged in a simple knot, a gown of white net over a white satin slip, devoid of fussy ornamentation but designed to show off the tall elegant figure to perfection--she was as pure and as perfect as a snowflake. Surrounded by a crowd of admirers, she still somehow appeared to be alone, aloof from idle conversations and petty intrigues, the gossip and the on dits being exchanged all around her, whispers that could make or break a reputation.
Tall and stately, she observed the scene with the disdainful serenity of one who knew herself to be above it all, sure of herself, fully conscious of her worth on the marriage mart, utterly confident of her power to attract the eager young bucks who flocked to her side. And he hated her for it, for this air of calm self-assurance. He knew what it meant for the dozens of men doing their utmost to win her attention. It meant they would be her willing slaves, falling all over themselves to earn just the tiniest smile from those beautifully sculpted lips, a look of approval from the sparkling eyes set under delicately arched dark brows, slaves just as his father had been.
"Lady Althea Beauchamp," his mother remarked, following her son's gaze. "The Duke of Clarendon's only child. She is an incomparable among incomparables, with a fortune besides. You would do well to marry someone like that, Gareth."
"I have no need to marry a fortune, Mama. I have one of my own."
"Faugh. A fortune won at the gaming tables. Too utterly vulgar." The Marchioness of Harwood sniffed disdainfully.
"No more vulgar than losing a fortune at the gaming tables as my father did."
"Your father was always a gentleman. No one could ever accuse him of doing anything that was bad ton."
"Except losing a fortune."
"Concerning oneself with money is bad ton. Your father never paid attention to money."
"Too true, especially when he owed it to every member of his club, every friend he could find, and every tradesman with whom he had even a passing acquaintance."
It was an unanswerable statement and all too unpleasantly true. The marchioness treated it as she treated all unpleasant things in her life; she ignored it. "Dear Lady Granville." She turned to smile at the woman next to her, whose long ostrich plume wafted dangerously close to the elaborate diamond aigrette adorning the marchioness's toque. "A sad crush, is it not? But we could not miss Lady St. John's rout for the world. And this must be your daughter, Amelia. Charming. Utterly charming. Do you not think so, my dear?" Lady Harwood turned to her son.
"If you say so, Mama." Gareth remained unmoved by the hurt expression in the shy brown eyes smiling so hopefully up at him. Undoubtedly the lovely Amelia would soon be making sheep's eyes at other, more susceptible young men who would quickly make her forget all about the callous behavior of the Bachelor Marquess. If Gareth had thought for one moment that the girl was truly upset by his cold response, he might have softened it with a rueful smile or some sort of acknowledgment, but he had met too many eager young women to be flattered into thinking they were interested in anything but his title and his fortune. Why, therefore, should he pretend to have any interest in them?
His glance strayed back to the young woman his mother had identified as Lady Althea Beauchamp. At least it could be said of her that she did not appear to be exerting the least bit of effort to enthrall the willing victims clustering around her. Her air of distant abstraction implied that she was thinking of something quite above and beyond the crowded ballroom, only becoming aware of her surroundings when a remark was addressed so obviously to her that a reply was unavoidable. Even then she acknowledged it with a barely discernible nod in the direction of the speaker.
As a tactic it worked to perfection; the less interested the lady appeared to be, the more the men crowded around her. Gareth could not help chuckling sardonically. Much as he disliked the implications of her colossal arrogance--that it sprang from being followed by a constant coterie of worshipful admirers who hung on every word and were ready to sell their souls for a smile from their goddess--he had to admire her independence, her refusal to laugh and flirt, to adopt the coy manners that all her peers seemed to think were guaranteed to drive a man to distraction, or at least most men, Gareth amended silently.
She had no need for such manners. Her stunning beauty was enough to draw every eye in the room, yet she appeared totally unconscious of it all, as unaware as a marble statue surrounded by connoisseurs exclaiming over its flawless lines and exquisite craftsmanship. Gareth swallowed hard, refusing to acknowledge the quickening of his own pulses as he watched her. After having so many women--Portuguese condesas and Spanish marquesas during his service in the Peninsula, opera dancers and expensive Cyprians at home--there was no reason he should be so affected by this particular young woman, no reason at all. But he was drawn to her in spite of himself.
"Come, Mama. I see the Countess of Rothsay and Lady Edgcumbe over there across the room." He guided his mother through the press of people as best he could, toward a group of dowagers arranged like generals along one wall and surveying the scene with critical eyes, deploring the coming manners of the jumped-up Miss Thorp or the daring decolletage of Lord Hilverton's dashing young wife.
Procuring his mother, Lady de Vere, a chair next to the countess, Gareth escaped before she could protest. While the marchioness enjoyed a good gossip as well as the next person, she infinitely preferred being seen on the arm of a handsome imposing gentleman, even if it was only her son. "Dear Gareth, so attentive. He absolutely insisted on escorting me to the St. Johns' rout, and now he will positively wear himself out keeping me supplied with refreshments and doing everything in his power to assure himself of my comfort." The marchioness smiled triumphantly at the countess, whose resolutely dull brood of children remained immured in their respective country estates. Furthermore, her husband was never seen anywhere but traveling between their residence in Berkeley Square and the card room at White's, leaving the countess utterly dependent on Lady Edgcumbe for amusement and companionship.
"Then we should have warned your son that the refreshments are at quite the opposite end of the room." The countess, gleefully noting Gareth's hurried departure, was perfectly capable of giving as good as she got.
"Ah, no, you are wrong, my dear. I am sure he has gone to speak with Lady Althea--such a delightful young woman with the exquisite breeding and manners that are so rare among young people these days. Gareth, as you know, is so sought after himself that he has become very particular and only an incomparable of incomparables can arouse his interest."
"And of course the young lady stands to inherit such a large fortune." The countess was not about to allow her old friend to have the last word. She had been at school with little Sally Farnborough, and not a day had gone by without that pert young lady hatching yet another scheme to catch herself a wealthy husband.
"I had not realized that your son was in the market for a wife. One hears that he is so unusually particular that he only seeks out the company of, er, professional women." Not to be outdone by her companion, Lady Edgcumbe smirked maliciously.
"Oh, my dears, have you ever seen such absurd headgear as Lady Marston is wearing? She looks a positive dowdy in that quiz of a turban, but then she never did have the least modicum of taste." Once again the marchioness resolutely ignored the unpleasant implications swirling around her.
"Do you not know that she is greatly epris with Lord Wilverdale? And it is said that Marston positively welcomes the distraction, which frees him at last."
Both ladies turned to look at Lady Edgcumbe in some surprise, but the countess was the first to speak. "I had no idea that Marston had an eye for the fair sex."
"He does not. He merely wants to be left in peace to hunt and gamble with his cronies, and his wife's constant demands for attention were making it impossible."
"A situation with which our dear countess is intimately acquainted," the marchioness could not refrain from adding.
Meanwhile, less conscious of the direction in which he was moving than the ladies who were observing his progress, Gareth made his way slowly toward the corner of the room where Lady Althea was holding court.
"Gareth ... Gareth ... I say old fellow ..."
Drawn inexorably and inexplicably toward the young woman at the other side of the room, his eyes fixed on the lovely face, Gareth did not even hear his own name spoken until he nearly collided with a pleasant-faced young man sporting a cravat expertly knotted in an oriental.
"Been out in the sun too long, old man, or has rustication caused you to forget the existence of your old friends?"
"Ceddie! I beg your pardon. I did not see you in this crush of people."
"No need to point that out. I have been positively shouting for your attention this age." Turning his head as far as the stiff points of his collar would allow him, the honorable Cedric Fontescue regarded his friend curiously. It was not like Gareth to be woolgathering. Ceddie had known him since their schooldays together at Eton and if anything could be said of Gareth de Vere, it was that he was awake on every suit, even to the point of being uncomfortably acute. Under the gaze of those penetrating gray eyes, one felt one's very soul revealed.
Those eyes were not focused on Cedric now, however. Instead, they kept flicking off to one particular corner of the room. Ceddie turned to follow their gaze. It must be something highly unusual to distract a man who was ordinarily so bored by gatherings like this that he almost never attended them. Or, on the rare occasions he did, it was to head straight to the card room to fleece some unfortunate who had the temerity to boast that he could beat the Marquess of Harwood at his own game.
"I should not have thought you would waste a glance on Lady Althea, even if she is the catch of the Season. It is not like you, Gareth." Ceddie too could be remarkably acute when he chose to be.
The slight tinge of color that crept over the marquess's high cheekbones was so faint that it almost seemed to be a trick of light from the massive crystal chandelier above them. Ceddie's eyes narrowed as he observed his friend more closely. This was a change indeed. "Even you, Gareth, devastating as you are to the fair sex. would lose there. They say she has not looked twice at anyone, even Wolverton. In fact, she is so unimpressionable that they are calling her the Ice Princess. But she is quite lovely, is she not?"
"Lovely? My dear Ceddie, where are your eyes? She is exquisite," Gareth drawled as his gaze swept the young woman in question with the coolly detached air of a connoisseur. "And furthermore, she is thoroughly aware of it. No, Ceddie, highly cultivated works of art do not appeal to me. They are far too expensive and exhausting to maintain. Give me a true woman, a passionate creature of flesh and blood who demands a fair price for her favors, not a man's soul."
"Like the divine Maria?" Ceddie grinned. "Surely she costs you a pretty penny. I saw her new barouche and its handsome pair in the park the other day."
"Like the divine Maria. She is expensive, but she named her price at the outset and has never wavered from it. And she is worth every penny. Not only is she, ah, extremely skilled, she is content to accept my, ah, protection without demanding eternal devotion, constant companionship, or even my occasional escort. She is a delightfully practical creature who does not bore one with tears, tantrums, or jealous fits, all of which I am certain our celebrated beauty over there has on a regular basis."
"But surely with that face, that fortune, that lineage, she is entitled to a little show of temperament."
Gareth snorted. "Perhaps those poor deluded fools hanging on her every word are prepared to suffer, but I, Ceddie, am no fool. I suffer no illusions about beautiful incomparables."
"No, that you do not." Ceddie regarded his friend thoughtfully. "But I am not so sure that your cynicism makes you any happier than their delusions make them."
"Ceddie, your skill at the card table is infinitely superior to your talent for philosophy. I suggest you abandon your attempts to analyze my state of mind and stick to piquet--so much less complicated, is it not?" Gareth took his friend's arm and, without a backward glance at the offending Ice Princess, steered his friend toward the refreshment room.