Something made him look in that direction, toward the chairs set aside for chaperones and dowagers. Just a brief glance, and he saw her, his gaze stopping on the picture she presented. Her dark hair was pinned up under a dainty lace cap, a dove grey dress made of a finer fabric, and a small pointy nose over a bright, happy smile as she chatted with animation to a tall man standing near. Eversliegh, he noted, with little interest. He brought his gaze back to her; she interested him.
Casually, oh, so casually, he moved closer, along the wall, to get a better look. He ignored the crowds, and as usual, they also ignored him. God, but he hated these affairs. Too many people, too many false personalities, too many sidelong glances and outright stares that they didn’t think he’d see.
He’d made it close enough to see the fine, high cheekbones of her face, thick lashes that framed eyes of a colour he suddenly, desperately wanted to know. She didn’t seem so tiny up close. If she stood, she’d be taller than many of the women here, maybe as tall as to come up to his nose. Her body had beautiful curves that he could see, even with her sitting, and why was she still sitting? Why didn’t she dance like the rest of them, those fluttering butterflies on the ballroom floor, twirling gaily in the arms of a handsome lord?
The significance of her grey dress came to him, a memory of when he used to be a proper lord, sought after on the marriage mart, when debutantes would surreptitiously drop their handkerchiefs and fans at his feet, hoping he’d gift them with his attention once he’d retrieve whatever had been dropped, as a proper lord should. Half mourning, meaning it was proper for her to attend society functions, yet frowned upon if she participated. A most ridiculous rule in the grand scheme of things, when reality meant that life was short, and a younger son who’d known nothing but battlefields for fifteen years could suddenly find himself called back to England and in possession of a dukedom.
A dukedom that should never have been his, but guaranteed him entry into every event of the ton, and should have blinded the women of the ton to his scarred face. But the ones his face hadn’t chased off, his cold personality had. He no longer had the patience for simpering, or coy, flirtatious looks, and eventually they all left him alone. And still he came to these events, looking for ... something, or someone, he wasn’t sure.
Eversliegh was gone now, the viscount had abandoned her to seek a partner for the waltz that was just starting, and she was left alone, in the trio of chairs by the wall. He stepped closer to her, noting that she was not nearly as young as she looked from afar, maybe in her late twenties, maybe older still. Her face was still shining, happy, and a smile tugged at her lips as she watched the dancers. He stepped closer, watching her from the corner of his eye, and keeping his profile turned out toward the dancers on the floor.
“May I join you?” He watched as she turned to him, a start of surprise, as though she hadn’t realized he was so close. He didn’t turn toward her at all, but gestured to the chair on her right.
“Of course, you may,” she replied. Her voice was as smooth as a fine brandy, a little huskier than he’d imagined, and a sincere look of welcome was on her face. He sat beside her, as she twitched her skirts out of the way, a move that was clearly a well-practiced one, as though she was always seated, instead of where she ought to be, dancing and laughing with the crowd.
He was struck by a rare moment of whimsy as he watched her watch the dancing. She ought to have pointy ears, he mused, and almost grinned. She looked decidedly elf-ish, tall and with a face that hinted of otherworldly things. But her ears were rounded in all the proper places, and he waited until her attention was back to the dancing and turned his head more fully to study her up close. She radiated a quiet contentment, and he wondered who she had lost. A husband? A father? Or some other family member? He tried to remember the rules of polite behaviour, things that used to be as ingrained as breathing, and couldn’t remember if he ought to wait until a proper introduction should be done before he could ask her any impertinent questions.
He wanted to touch her, to feel her skin, and he cursed the gloves he was wearing, knowing they made any supposedly accidental contact useless. She was perfect, flawless beauty, and he wanted her with a need so sharp he nearly gasped at the sudden feel of it.
He was watching her again, the tall, silent man sitting beside her. She wanted to turn and study him, but Lucy caught her eye from the dance floor, happiness in her eyes, and Kate grinned at her cousin. Judging by the smile on Viscount Eversliegh’s face as he danced with Lucy, there was sure to be an offer there soon. It would be a stellar match for the youngest daughter of a baron, and Miss Lucy Warwick was one of this season’s shining diamonds.
“For whom do you mourn?” The quiet question caught her off guard, and Kate turned fully to the man beside her. He still hadn’t really looked at her, as far as she could tell, his face forward, and she wondered if she imagined it, but no, he was watching her from the side of his eye, still, and awaiting her answer.
It was an impolite question at best, but she answered him anyway, with a soft smile, “My mother. She has been gone for some time now, I suppose.”
“’You suppose’?” One dark eyebrow arched, over an eye of deep, dark brown. “Are you not quite sure?”
Kate grinned at him, a quick flash of humour at his handling of her awkward phrase. “It feels as though less time has passed some days.”
“My condolences,” he grumbled, and she felt a quick, gentle squeeze of her hand in his, a shockingly bold breach of propriety, and he suddenly rose, as though he knew it and sought to escape before committing another. With a short bow in her direction, dark hair curling around his face, he was gone, swallowed by the crowd, and she sat in bemused silence, staring after him.
She put him out of her mind as she watched Eversliegh escort her cousin back to her, the oh-so-convenient chaperone, and grinned wryly as she realized The Chattering Horde followed them. The Horde, as Lucy dubbed them, a flock of glittering, titled wastrels, prone to following Lucy, and therefore herself as well about social events.
Oh, they weren’t too annoying. Several of them paid attention to herself, often forgoing the pleasures of the dance floor to sit and chat, keeping Kate company, and not too obviously waiting for their main objective to return from the dance floor. A lady could only dance with one at a time, after all. And Kate, well, Lady Kate Dennings couldn’t dance at all.
The Chattering Horde descended upon them, and she settled in for an enjoyable round of flirtatious banter. They did not disappoint.
“I say, Lady Kate, how is that you’ve met the Dark Duke?” One of the Horde, oh blast, she never could get their names straight. Edgeworth, or Eastling, she wasn’t quite sure, but he was a handsome man, with golden curls styled just so, and laughing blue eyes. There were a frightful lot of vowels available, and why she seemed to be surrounded by the letter E she didn’t know, but his question caught her notice.
“The Dark Duke, my lord?” She laughed, “are we in a gothic novel, now?”
“You know,” said the other E, “Damien Havelock, the Duke of Westbrook. The Dark Duke!” And he wiggled his eyebrows menacingly at her, leering with comical satisfaction at her. Lucy smacked him lightly on the arm with her fan, and Edgeworth (or Eastling) bowed in humble apology. “He always attends, but this is the first time I’ve seen him talk to any lady.”
“Oh, well then, there you have it. We hardly spoke at all. I think he just wanted a place to sit for a spell. I did not even know his name.” She looked at the Horde, and found one she could put a name to (not an E, thank goodness), “Mister Caldwell, I hate to be so forward, but could you please fetch me a glass of punch?”
“Of course, my lady,” And he was off, after a quick inquiry of Lucy, and returned shortly with two glasses of punch for each of the ladies.
Kate woke way too early for the lateness of the night before, with sunshine streaming through the windows and the songs of birds in her ears. Moaning, she pulled a pillow over her face, and wished, not for the first time, that she was deaf until after the hour of twelve. Mornings were a hideous business, and there were far too many of them in her mind.
Attempting to recapture sleep, and some of whatever pleasant dream she was having, was useless, however. A whirlwind in the direction of the doorway dragged her head out from under the pillow, and she glared in disgust at her cousin. Lucy looked like a beautiful spring day, blonde curls arranged to perfection, and dressed in an annoyingly sunny yellow frock. “Kate! What are you doing still in bed? It’s nearly ten of the clock!” She ignored Kate’s scowl, and flopped onto the bed beside her. “Sally’s bringing you coffee, you miserable thing, and you promised, promised, Kate; to come with me to the park this morning to walk with Eversliegh. Out of bed with you, you troll.”
“Were I truly a troll, Luce, I would eat you and be left to sleep in peace. You’d probably give me indigestion though, morning people never taste good.” Kate sat up and stuck her tongue out at her cousin.
“And how would you know what morning people taste like? We’re not a different species, Kate. We probably taste the same as grouchy people.”
“No, no. You likely taste of sunshine, chocolate, and happiness, like a frothy dessert. Whereas I,” Kate paused and thought for a moment. “Whereas I shall likely taste of a rich, dark coffee, maybe with a bit of cream. Speaking of coffee, did you not just say one was coming?”
Sally, ever the competent little maid, entered with a brisk knock, and delivered the steaming hot cup of coffee to Kate’s bedside table, accompanied with a cup of cocoa for Lucy. Kate arched an eyebrow at Lucy, and mouthed frothy dessert. Lucy giggled and yanked the covers down, nearly pushing Kate from the bed. She bounded to the wardrobe and started rifling through gowns as Kate swung her legs over the edge of the bed and reached for the dark brew.
Lucy was nervous, and it became more apparent as she checked and summarily dismissed each of Kate’s day dresses. “Does it really matter what *I* am wearing?”
Lucy straightened up at the question, and went stiff for a moment, turning to look at Kate with a horrified expression. “Oh my god, Kate, we are going for a walk! I should have said riding, shouldn’t I? What a horrible coil. Do you think he’ll mind if we take horses?”
“I think I might mind,” Kate answered, frowning at the younger woman. “Really, Luce, we walk all the time. Whatever is the matter with you? Eversliegh has seen me walk before, I assure you. I have known him for several years.”
“You don’t think he’ll think me selfish, for suggesting a walk? I mean ... I could have said driving ...”
“But you had a picture in your mind of strolling arm in arm with a handsome viscount, I imagine,” Kate drawled. Lucy in a chagrined dither was an amusing sight. “Who do you think took me walking after the accident? Luce, please, he will think nothing less of you. The man is completely smitten, I swear it. Just try not to walk too fast.”
They found her a bench, bless their souls, Lucy and Edward Raleigh, the Viscount Eversliegh, two beautiful people, with golden hair, and they walked far enough away that she couldn’t hear their conversation, but close enough that all the proper proprieties were observed. Really, she was a terrible chaperone, but Kate couldn’t bring herself to care overmuch. She had a bench, the pressure was off of her leg, and she could almost pretend that she was back at Newark, in the fields of flowers. Newark before the accident, of course. When she was a happy girl on the cusp of womanhood, and full of romantic notions like her cousin.
Lost in happy memories, it took a while before a prickle of awareness danced across her skin, and when she turned her head, he was standing behind her, watching her. The sun was full in his face, and she saw him clearly for the first time. Dark, wavy hair of deep, rich mahogany; a face of chiselled masculine beauty, ruined by a network of jagged scars on one side, leaving a sharp contrast of ugly and beautiful. His face was set in tight lines, and he let her look her fill, her gaze roaming over the scars and then, finally, into his eyes.
She knew she ought to rise and curtsy, but she was loathe to expose herself, to give up the comfort of her position, and to give admittance to the fact that she knew who he was. Instead, she cleared her throat, and asked him if he would care to join her.
He took a place on the bench, to her left side, leaving the scarred side of his face turned toward her, unlike he had last night. He felt impossibly large next to her, and she couldn’t help the sizzle of attraction she felt looking at him. She smiled at him, and caught the quick start of surprise in him. Surprise at what, she couldn’t imagine. He sat, still and silent, and she wondered if maybe he just didn’t know how to start a conversation. Or maybe he didn’t want to; there was only the one bench in this area of the park, set in a small arbour of trees, and perhaps he just needed a place to rest, as she did. She took her eyes from him, and instead looked around for Lucy, finally spying her talking to a man on horseback, and another pretty couple. From this distance she couldn’t quite make out their identities, and she frowned a little.
“Lord Chester and Lady Fairmont, and then man on horseback is Carson Neville,” his deep voice drew her eyes back to him, and she stared at him now, wondering if he could read minds. He smiled, and the scars stood out in sharp relief, what should have been a grimace brought instead a shadow of the gloriously handsome man he must have been. It was enough to make her want to touch him, but she tightened her hands in her lap, and smiled back.
“I thank you, my lord,” she said instead.
Humour lit his eyes, and he gave a short chuckle. “You have a very expressive face. Your thoughts are written plainly for all to see.”
She felt the heat rising in her cheeks. “Good heavens, I certainly hope not.” She wrinkled her nose at him, “how very embarrassing that could turn out to be.”
With a short laugh he reached over, and picked an ebony walking stick that was placed on the bench on her other side. Kate sucked in a breath as his arm brushed across her chest and she could feel the muscles and heat through the many layers of cloth that covered them both. A very odd thrill ran through her and she fought to keep still when he pulled his arm pulled back, with the cane in his hand. “Odd,” he muttered, turning the cane over in his hands. “I didn’t think Eversliegh was the type for an affectation.”
Kate licked her lips, and held out her hand for the cane. “It’s not ... it’s mine. Please return it to me, your grace.” This then, this was the moment that she’d relived over and over again, with every new acquaintance, the look of pity in his eyes, the embarrassed retreat, the rejection. She refused to look at him, and simply held out her hand, and waited for him to leave her alone with her frustrations, her humiliations, and most of all, her inability to walk properly without help.
Damien Havelock, sixth Duke of Westbrook, couldn’t stop staring. He knew better. But still he stared at her as he placed the cane in her outstretched hand; he stared as she gathered up her skirts; and he stared as she rose to her feet, taking her cane and using it to push on the ground, as she strode, in as stately a manner as possible, with one foot clearly set at an angle it shouldn’t be, away from him, and out of his offensive presence.
He stared as she came abreast of the small group of pretty young people, and he stared as he saw Eversliegh reach over a hand to cup the lady’s elbow in welcome and smile down at her with clear affection. And he was still staring when Eversliegh looked up and caught his eyes, with a hard, angry look. A look of warning, and Damien wondered if he’d mis-read the situation, that perhaps the viscount had an interest in this lady, and not the beautiful girl on his arm already.
And then he wondered if they’d be out tonight; if he’d see her again, so he could apologize for the appallingly rude bastard he’d become.