About the book
She was his rose petal oasis in a desert of thorns…
For Arabella Green, interactions with society have been just short of torture. Mocked and ridiculed all her life for her appearance, she’s resigned herself to a loveless marriage.
Still mourning his father’s death, marriage is the last thing on Cornelius Kingman, the Duke of Nightwell’s mind. Until the day he meets the one woman the ton can’t stop whispering about: Lady Arabella.
And while society’s scorn is a thorn in their side, the real monster hides in plain sight.
When Arabella’s betrothed is murdered, Cornelius is the prime suspect. Broken glass and the glint of a knife are all Arabella sees before she is taken. With Cornelius’ fate hanging by a thread, she is offered one choice: to drink from the same glass that killed her fiance...
Joan Ramsbury, the Viscountess of Brancheley, sat at her table and watched the proceeding. Both the dancefloor and the ballroom were buzzing with activity. Her table was one of the best in the house, located near the dancefloor; it was perfect to see and be seen. Lady Brancheley smiled; she had certainly been seen this evening.
She smoothed down her primrose-colored silk dress, which was richly adorned with detailed chenille embroidery. Her hair was hidden under a beautiful matching turban. A few deliberately placed curls peeked out, framing her face. She knew very well that she drew attention, and that was just how she liked it.
Lady Brancheley smiled to herself. Despite her relatively low rank of Viscountess, she was among the most respected and admired ladies of the ton. Her husband, Viscount Brancheley, possessed considerable wealth and influence, which helped elevate her position further.
To think that the daughter of a lowly baronet would be one of the most revered ladies in all of London.
Now, if I can only help Priscilla get the match she so badly wants.
She scanned the room. Her only child, Priscilla, was on the dancefloor. She smiled as she watched her daughter float on the arm of a young Earl. He appeared besotted. No wonder. Priscilla had inherited her mother’s beauty. Her hair, of a rich honey blond color, and her blue eyes were identical to her own, although Priscilla, of course, had the gift of youth on her side in addition.
As the last notes of the Cotillion sounded, she watched as the young Earl leaned forward.
“Do you suppose he is asking her for another dance?” Lady Markham asked beside her, winking. Lady Brancheley had almost forgotten her friend was even there, so occupied had she been with her observations.
“I should hope not. That would be highly inappropriate. She knows better than to give her dances away quite so freely.”
Lady Markham nodded. “Of course, of course. I was only speaking in jest to lighten the mood. Faith, I remember when my Milli had just come out, looking for a husband. Ever so stressful. And you’ve been waiting for two Seasons now.” She patted Lady Brancheley’s hand in a manner that was meant to be kind but struck her as condescending. “Priscilla will find her match soon, I am sure.”
Lady Brancheley cleared her throat and sat straighter, pushing her chest out.
“Of course, she will. If only she didn’t have her heart set on Lord Wallersley. This arrangement his parents have with Lord Braewood is just awful.” Her eyes narrowed.
“A shame indeed. That poor boy. Imagine being promised to Arabella Green when you are but a baby. And for her to turn out so…unfortunate,” Lady Markham shook her head.
“Indeed,” Lady Brancheley replied. She was about to let her friend know just what her thoughts on the matter were when someone else drew Lady Markham’s attention.
“Heaven forewent, isn’t that Lady Jordan, entering now?”
Lady Brancheley turned to her, slightly perturbed at being interrupted. Then she raised an eyebrow as she saw the woman enter, head held high.
“Indeed, it is. What a disgrace. The gall to show up here.”
Lady Markham grimaced. “Imagine having to show one’s face in society when one’s husband so openly carries on with the governess,” she shook her head.
Lady Brancheley shrugged. “She must have done something wrong for him to feel the need to stray. No, Lisbeth, make no mistake. It is just as I always tell Priscilla. A woman must make her husband happy. That is her duty. A happy husband will not stray, and if he does, then it is up to the wife to ensure all of society does not know.” She scoffed took a sip of Negus. “I feel no sympathy for the Countess.”
Her friend glanced at her for a moment without speaking but then nodded. “You are correct, of course, Lady Brancheley. As always. She really ought to have stayed away. It is unseemly.”
Lady Brancheley nodded but turned her gaze back to the dancefloor. Having passed her judgment on the unfortunate Countess, she turned her attention back to what really mattered. Her daughter. One the dancefloor, the Cotillion had ended, and the young Earl departed.
Before Priscilla could so much as sit down, Lady Brancheley addressed her.
“Did you secure a partner for the next dance?”
Priscilla sat beside her and took a sip of wine.
“Not for the Quadrille, no. I had rather hoped to dance the Quadrille with Lord Wallersley, it is his favorite. I saved it for him especially.” She blushed as she spoke of the man she’d had her heart set on for the past two Seasons.
“Is Lord Wallersley even here yet? I have not seen him,” Lady Markham said, peering in the crowd. Lady Brancheley did likewise, but unlike her friend, she spotted the young Marquess at once.
“There he is,” she pointed discreetly with her chin. Beside her, she heard her daughter sigh as she glanced at the man. Lady Brancheley was pleased to see the young man returned the glance and smiled at Priscilla. No wonder. She was a beauty after all, especially tonight.
The pale rose-colored gown she wore was embroidered with pearls and had a lace overlay, which gave it a stark contrast to some of the more conventional gowns. It made her stand out—particularly when compared to the Marquess’ unfortunate company.
“He will ask you to dance, Priscilla, I know it,” Lady Markham said. “He appears eager to get away.”
The three women giggled at the statement, for it was true. Duncan Andrews, Marquess of Wallersley, looked utterly miserable, looking around the room as though desperate for an escape.
“Some women really ought not to bother attending these events…”
Lady Markham narrowed her eyes. “I take it you mean Arabella Green… Not just Lady Jordan.”
Lady Brancheley let a dramatic sigh escape her mouth. “She is rather too … voluptuous to be considered a proper lady. In fact, there ought to be a rule against pre-arranged unions, especially when one turns out less than desirable. Let the true ladies have a chance at a good match. Not one who looks as though she belongs in the kitchen rather than a ballroom.”
Lady Markham nodded. “I really blame her mother. She must not have instilled any discipline in her. I would never allow Hester or Milli to reach that size. No wonder the boy looks so miserable. Imagine being promised to that girl.”
“Indeed,” Lady Brancheley shuddered at the thought. “Look at her. Walking around as though she belongs.”
“She is an Earl’s daughter,” Priscilla pointed out, much to Lady Brancheley’s irritation.
Her head whipped around to her daughter. Speaking in a low tone only Priscilla could hear, she hissed, “She is vile, and he clearly is not interested in her. I suggest, if you are serious about the Marquess, you better start making your moves. If not, well, many eligible men would be glad to court you. And we both know you are in need of an eligible man to take care of you. Unless you prefer the poorhouse.”
Priscilla swallowed at the harsh words. Lady Brancheley did not like speaking harshly to her daughter. However, sometimes she found being blunt was the best way to get Priscilla to listen.
“I am serious about him, Mother. He is all I dream of. And I know he is fond of me as well. I can tell. I just do not know what to do about Lady Arabella.”
Lady Brancheley nodded. “For one, do not refer to her as a Lady. She does not deserve the title. In any case, she is not even properly English. My advice? Ensure she knows she does not belong. Point out her shortcomings to her face and behind her back. Wear her down. Soon enough, she will see that she’d be better off wed to someone less desirable and allow the Marquess to be free.”
“I don’t know, Mother. That seems a farfetched plan. It is not La…Arabella who made the arrangement for her to wed Duncan. It is their parents.”
Having overheard the conversation, Lady Markham re-inserted herself into the conversation.
“Listen to your mother, she knows what she is talking about. Believe me, wear down the girl’s confidence to nothing, and she will not put up a fight. I know her father, Lord Braewood. With enough pressure, he will give in. He gives in to anything his wife and daughters demand, given enough time…”
“I suppose,” Priscilla relented. “If it means I will be the Marchioness of Wallersley one day, I shall do as you say.”
Lady Brancheley smiled to herself as she took in the sight of the horrid girl. She was standing on the edge of the dancefloor, alongside her sister and Lord Wallersley. The girl, Arabella, had a pretty face, she admitted to herself. The rest of her, however, was ghastly. Utterly ghastly. Lady Brancheley could not remember the last time a lady of the ton had been quite so large. She was easily twice the size of Priscilla.
“How the carriage does not collapse under her weight, I will never understand. I pity the horses,” she said with venom. Beside her, Lady Markham giggled.
“Lady Brancheley, the things you say are scandalous,” a woman at the next table chuckled.
She relished the attention but soon turned her focus back to the young woman who’d just arrived. If not for an agreement made when they were children, Lord Wallersley would be free to wed whomever he chose. He could simply ask to court Priscilla. As it was, the entire ton knew that one day soon, Lord Wallersley and Lady Arabella would be officially betrothed, whether they liked it or not.
Under ordinary circumstances, Lady Brancheley would have simply let the matter go. As vile as she thought Arabella Green was, it would not have bothered her. However, given that Priscilla wanted nobody but Lord Wallersley, Lady Brancheley had to get involved. Her daughter had already wasted two Seasons on the man, declining to court anyone else. This Season had to bear fruit. Up ahead, the trio of the Green sisters and the Marquess made their way toward their table at the back of the room.
“Smile, get ready to be asked to dance.” She hissed as Priscilla, who frowned. Lady Brancheley nodded toward Arabella Green, who was making her way toward them. They would need to pass directly by them to get to their table. Mindful of her size, Lady Arabella maneuvered herself carefully past the assorted guests while still frequently bumping into chairs.
As they got closer, Lady Brancheley could see the embarrassment on her face.
Poor dear… You are about to be a lot more embarrassed.
“Well, I must say, I am getting rather tired,” Lady Brancheley suddenly said loud enough for everyone at her table to hear. “I believe I had better take the air for a little white, lest I fall asleep. Lady Markham, care to accompany me?”
Her friend frowned in confusion, causing Lady Brancheley to give her a kick under the table. They had to hurry for Lady Arabella and her party were almost within reach.
“Of course, my dearest JoanI would love to.” Lady Markham rose, joined a moment later by Lady Brancheley.
Lady Arabella had just reached their table, and her companion, Lord Wallersley, had his eyes on Priscilla again. With a smile, Lady Brancheley pretended to fuss with her shawl when, ever so discretely, she stuck her foot forward, just in the path of Lady Arabella who –“Faith!” The young woman called out.
Her arms shot out as she grabbed the air in an effort to steady herself. For a moment, she reached for Priscilla, but, being her mother’s daughter, the girl stepped back, refusing to provide any assistance.
Instead of the helpful hands of Priscilla, Lady Arabella grabbed hold of the chair Lady Brancheley had been seated in a moment ago, and it fell to the floor alongside Arabella, creating a deafening sound, which had all eyes turning toward them.
“My, what a misfortune,” Lady Brancheley said loudly. “They really ought to have better quality chairs in such an establishment. To break simply because a young lady of considerable girth sits upon them is just not acceptable.”
To her delight, the young Marquess did nothing to assist his companion but instead chuckled at her comment.
Lady Arabella, meanwhile, sat upright, mortification written all over her face as her sister fussed over her.
“I wasn’t sitting. I was walking, and I tripped. I….”
“Walking must be difficult when you are not able to see your own feet when you look down,” Priscilla said then, causing her mother’s heart to swell with pride.
The chuckles and giggles among the lords and ladies grew louder.
“Duncan, would you…” Lady Arabella reached up toward Lord Wallersley, seeking his help in getting up. The young man, however, stepped back.
“Afraid not. My back is not in a condition to help. You know I can’t lift anything heavy.”
He glanced at Priscilla, and the two exchanged a smile, ignoring the helpless girl who struggled to her feet with the assistance of her sister. Lady Brancheley spotted tears in her eyes, and for a moment, she almost felt bad.
Almost. For then, someone at the next table called out, “Shall I bring my draft horse to help you up? It’s handled bigger loads!”
This comment sent the surrounding tables into fits of laughter, and the young woman, uprightat last , gasped in mortification.
Then with her gaze fixed to the ground, shaking her head in disbelief, she rushed past Lady Brancheley, Priscilla, and Lord Wallersley. Lady Brancheley looked after her. Her long, dark hair had come away for its carefully crafted arrangement and wavered behind her as she rushed out of the room, followed by her equally embarrassed sister.
“Well,” Lord Wallersley said, “It appears I am out of a dance partner for the Quadrille. Would you care to join me, Miss Ramsbury?”
Lady Brancheley’s attention at once turned to her daughter and the man she intended to wed.
“I would love to, My Lord,” Priscilla curtsied. Just before she took the Marquess’ hand to be led to the dancefloor, she turned to Lady Brancheley.
“Thank you, Mother.”
Lady Brancheley squeezed her hand. “It is as I told you. He will be yours, one way or the other. And she,” she looked into the direction Lady Arabella had run, “she doesn’t even know what’s coming to her yet. But she will learn. And soon.”
Two Weeks Later…
Arabella stood in her chamber and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. She sighed. Her black, wavy hair had been parted at the center, confined in a Grecian style, and adorned with yellow flowers. It matched her canary yellow dress. Made of Dhaka Muslin, it was light yet simple in style. The empire waist style with puff sleeves complemented her figure, accentuating her bust and waist.
I wish I lived in a society where size did not matter. I would be perfectly happy with myself if not for…well… other people.
At least she had finally found a color that complemented her. Yellow in various shades looked lovely with her olive-skin, so did sapphire blue. Rich colors, unlike the ones currently in fashion, seemed to suit her complexion best. She’d seen that on her mother as well. As she observed herself, the door opened and her cousin, Teresa, entered.
“My, aren’t you ever the beauty!”
Arabella smiled at the sincerity in Teresa’s voice.
“Thank you. I do not feel beautiful, but it is nice to hear in any case.”
Teresa stepped beside her and played with the puff sleeves, making them stand out more.
“Well, if you do not believe it yourself, believe me. You are beautiful.” Her cousin wrapped her hands around her shoulder.
“You will have a wonderful evening, I promise you.”
Arabella sighed and shook her head. “I never do, Teresa. I despise these events ever so much. I do not know why I am forced to attend them in any case. I am already promised to Duncan. It is not as though I need to search for a husband like all the other ladies who go to these balls.”
Teresa let go of her shoulder and climbed onto the bed, which sat in the middle of the room, dangling her legs over the side.
“You know Aunt Elena and Uncle Sol feel a proper lady ought to hone her social skills. But perhaps you can speak to them again? Especially after the events at the last ball.”
Arabella shrugged. “I did. Mama said that now more than ever, I must show my face and hold my head high. She said these mean people want to bring me down and that I ought not to let them. However, I think if it were not for Papa’s insistence, she’d let me stay home. You know how she is.”
Teresa nodded. “This society is so very different from the way she and my mother were brought up. The truth is, I do not understand the fascination with one’s reputation and what society thinks. There are far too many rules for me. Balls should be about fun, dancing, conversation, eating. Instead, all anyone worries about is who to marry or how to outmaneuver someone else for the heart of this Duke or that Earl.”
Arabella smiled. “I wish you could go with me. It would be ever so much more fun. Beatrice is good company, but I can tell she would rather not be my chaperone if it could be helped. And Duncan…,” she shook her head and looked away.
“I will never understand why Aunt and Uncle insist you marry this snooty little boy. He is not good enough for you. You deserve better.”
Arabella turned and sat on the edge of the bed, next to her cousin.
“Truthfully, it is a good match. He is the son of a Duke. It will secure my station in life and that of our children.” She shuddered at the thought of having to produce children with Duncan. “And to be honest, which other noble man would want a woman like me?”
Teresa’s eyes widened. “A smart one. One who cares not about the outside but the inside. Bella, I wish you could move back to Spain with me. People there are so much warmer and loving. Not so… what is it you call it? Proper.”
Arabella smiled, for she knew well that Teresa had no way of knowing that this was true, not having lived in Spain for more than five-and-ten years.
Teresa, the daughter of Arabella’s aunt, had been sent to England after the death of her parents. She’d been raised alongside Arabella and her sister ever since then. The intention was to find her a suitable husband once she was of age. And once Arabella and Beatrice were both wed.
Given the unstable political situation in Spain, even if there had been family left to take her, Teresa would never have been able to return. Yet, she refused to think of herself as an English lady, always proudly claiming her Spanish side.
“Faith, Teresa, what I wouldn’t give to have you by my side tonight. After the last ball, I had hoped I would be excused. Alas, I was not so fortunate.”
She still thought back the ball two weeks ago with dread. She had never been so mortified. She still wasn’t sure how she’d managed to fall down in front of all these people. Graceful was not a word that would ever be applied to her. However, neither was clumsy.
“You are still thinking about it? Do not let it vex you. So, you fell, and people laughed. They are terrible. You knew this. They only showed their own poor character.”
“It was still mortifying. And for Duncan to do nothing but stand and look embarrassed. He would not even help lift me. The way he carried on, you would think I am the size of an elephant.”
Teresa shook her head. “Duncan Andrews deserves a slap. The only thing he has in his favor is the title he will inherit, nothing else. If his father were not Uncle Sol’s best friend, you would never have been forced into this union.”
Arabella sighed, well aware of this fact. “It is what it is. There is not a thing I can do about it.” She shrugged and slipped her feet into this evening’s shoes. “I must go. Beatrice will be here in a moment to collect me.”
Teresa got up and hugged her cousin once more.
“Stay strong. Be seen. Dance. Then come home. Perhaps stop at McArthur’s Sweets for some marzipan we can share? I shall have a cup of hot chocolate waiting for us when you return. We shall sit by the fire. You can tell me all about the dreadful ton, and I can tell you all the latest gossip I have learned from your mother.”
Arabella smiled. At least I have that to look forward to.—A late-night conversation with my cousin and very best friend.
An hour later, the carriage carrying Arabella and Beatrice stopped outside the Almack. There was a line of carriages waiting for their occupants to exit, and the two girls leaned back as they waited their turn.
“Please, try to stay upright tonight,” Beatrice said as she peered outside.
Arabella sneered at her. “It is not as though I fell on purpose,” she crossed her arms.
“Ah, horse feathers. Have a laugh, Bella. I am. What else can we do?”
“I do not feel like laughing. It was humiliating. You must admit that. Why must people be so horrid, Beatrice? I never hurt anyone. I just want to be liked for who I am.”
Her sister smiled and placed a hand on her forearm. “You are by those who matter. This,” she gestured to the Almack, “it’s all for show. It is what we must do due to our position in society. Once you are wed, you will no longer have to show your face at these events.” She sighed and shook her head. “By Jove, I certainly don’t miss it.”
Arabella grimaced at the words. She knew well that, just like her, Beatrice had never been a social butterfly. She’d been fortunate to meet her husband, Horace Pembroke, Marquess of Hallwell, very soon after her coming out ball. They’d courted for some months and then married, removing Beatrice from the marriage mart in record time.
Bella felt bad that now she was out, her sister was once again dragged into these affairs.
“I am sorry you have to chaperone me to these events. I know you did not like it yourself.”
Beatrice shrugged. “I did not. I was lucky to meet Horace when I did and thus avoid having to spend Season after Season at balls. At least, you will not have to do all this for very much longer. Another year and Duncan will be old enough to formally become your betrothed. Then you can retire your dancing shoes and settle into married life.”
The carriage set in motion again, and the two stopped outside the building.
“Now, let us get this over with, what do you say?”
Bella nodded and made her way out of the carriage, followed by her sister. She stood on the pavement as Beatrice exited, and she was once more struck by just how different they looked. While Bella was tall and sturdy, with more curves than the usual standard in their society, Beatrice was small and dainty, thinner than most other girls.
Their body shape was not the only difference for indeed, nobody would have taken them for sisters. While Bella had inherited their mother’s black hair and olive skin, Beatrice took after their father, with strawberry blond hair and green eyes, which stood out against her pale skin.
“There you are, at last! I thought I would have to grow roots!” Bella turned and saw Duncan standing by the front door, earning himself a glare from one of the Lady Patronesses.
“Duncan, good to see you,” Beatrice said as she curtsied. Bella always felt silly curtsying to Duncan, even though she knew it was the expected thing to do. They’d grown up together, and even though she’d always known that he was her future husband, she couldn’t help but look at him as an annoying brother. The thought of being married to him made her stomach turn. Just as the idea of marrying her turned his.
He never said this to her face, of course, but she knew. It was in the way he looked at her when the matter was being discussed. It was in the whispered conversations between his parents and hers, whenever he privately raised a fuss about the future wedding. And most of all, it was in the way he would look at the other ladies.
She sighed. It was what it was. Gathering her canary yellow gown up, so it did not drag on the floor, she joined Beatrice and Duncan as they made their way inside the Almack.
Arabella sat in the far-left corner, opposite the orchestra, and watched as the couples swayed across the dancefloor to the sound of the Quadrille. She spotted Duncan, beaming as he twirled Priscilla Ramsbury on his arm. The Quadrille was his favorite dance, and while he was sure to dance with her twice at every ball, he never shared the Quadrille with her.
She watched Priscilla on his arm. The girl was everything Arabella was not. Delicate, slender, and dainty. She was also vain, conniving, and rude, but these things did not matter to Duncan.
If I am honest, those traits complement him well, for he is not unlike her.
She chided herself for her unkind thoughts and took a sip of Negus from her cup. The hurt over his refusal to help her up at the previous ball still stung. The memory of the mortification was vivid in her mind. Judging by the pointed stares the older ladies in the room threw her way, she was not the only one who’d not forgotten the scene.
Where was Beatrice? She glanced around the room. She’d stepped away some time ago to greet a friend of hers. Bella suspected her sister had stopped for some refreshments. The Almack was famous for its delicious supper fare, and her sister was as fond of good food as Bella was. Unlike Bella, she could eat without gaining a pound and did so frequently.
“I never see her eat. Isn’t that curious?” A hushed voice sounded from her left. She glanced over and saw Lady Markham sitting there, her mouth hidden behind a large white feather fan. It was almost as if she thought that holding a fan in front of her lips made it so Arabella could not hear her mean words. In fact, many of the ladies acted this way.
“She must stuff her face before she arrives and when she returns. Perhaps visits the sweet shop on Regent’s Street,” the woman beside her chimed in.
“That must be why it is always out of candied fruit after these balls. Lady Arabella gets there first and buys it all,” another voice chimed in, sending the other two into fits of giggles.
Tears sprang to Arabella’s eyes. Why were these women so mean? She’d done nothing. She’d hurt nobody. Yes, she enjoyed eating. What was wrong with that? Arabella pressed her lips together. She’d vowed long ago not to deprive herself of the joys of food just to look a certain way. Still, the mean comments hurt.
Especially as they were not entirely untrue. Due to the mockery Arabella had to endure, she had long ago stopped eating at social gatherings. No matter how delicious the offerings, she always declined. It would only give them more fodder to make fun of her. She would eat a meal before leaving their home on Castle Lane, and then again upon returning. At times, she would indeed stop at a sweet shop to purchase a few items to share with her sister and cousin like she was planning to do tonight.
Faith, how nice it would be if Teresa could come to these balls with me. It would be ever so comforting to have a friend, other than Beatrice.
“Just as well she does not eat here; there might be nothing left!” Another woman said. It was then that she recognized the voice. It was Lady Joan Brancheley, Priscilla’s mother. It should have come as no surprise. The woman had always disliked Bella. The reason remained a mystery…
The ladies continued to look her way and giggle, while Bella felt herself grow even more uncomfortable. She was rather desperate to leave. There was really no reason for her to remain. She’d already danced twice with Duncan, the most he ever danced with her.
Nobody else would ask her to dance, nor had she any desire to. And as she did not dare eat here, there was nothing to do but watch the other couples dance. Once Beatrice returned, she would at least have company. For now, she’d just have to bide her time.
Up ahead, the Quadrille had ended, and couples were lining up for the Scotch Reel. Among them, to her shock, was Duncan, still paired up with Priscilla. He never danced with anyone more than once, out of respect for her and their arrangement. And yet, here he was. Even worse, he looked happy.
An odd feeling stirred inside of her. It wasn’t jealousy. No. It was that of betrayal. Neither of them had wanted to get married to the other, but they’d long ago decided that the least they could do was honor the promise that was made unless their parents chose to undo it. Dancing a second dance with a partner meant you were interested in them. It was a declaration. Everybody knew that.
Anger brewed inside of her. He was purposely humiliating her by dancing twice with someone other than her. This was not fair. It was not right. She would have to speak to him. She should not be left to sit all alone while he…
“Bella? Did you hear me?” Her sister’s voice drew her out of her raging thoughts, and she turned.
Cornelius felt his stomach flutter as he stood before the young woman, waiting for her sister to formally introduce him.
He felt butterflies in his stomach the way he had not in a very long time. Nerves gnawed at him. What if she declines? She looked young. Certainly, she had her eye on a man not so advanced in years. ballroom was, after all, filled with them. And he was two-and-thirty after all. The
He felt like a fool but forced a confident smile upon his face. He’d not expected to feel quite so nervous. In fact, he’d not even expected to ask anyone to dance. He was here mostly to please his mother, who’d all but begged him to be more social, now that he had succeeded his father as Duke of Nightwell.
Still, he’d figured that he would simply take a glass of Negus, eat a piece of honey bread, and engage in some forced conversation before departing early.
However, that was before he’d entered the ballroom and laid eyes upon her. She’d captivated him at once, sitting by herself at a table in the back with a serene expression on her face. She radiated warmth, and he’d felt drawn to her at once, unable to explain exactly why.
He’d been struck by her beautiful yellow gown, a lovely contrast to her black hair. The brightness of the gown had been ever so striking, making her stand out against all the pretty, yet strangely uniform, ball gowns the other ladies were wearing.
As far as the eye could see, the ballroom and adjacent chambers were filled with young women who appeared to be mere copies of one another. Pale, light-haired, with satin or silk gowns in a variety of subdued colors. He didn’t recall this type of monotony from his younger days. He’d been rather a dandy in his youth, but those days were long behind him now.
He felt like an old man, coming out of his house after years of isolation, seeing the world again for the first time.
He knew he was at an age now, at two-and-thirty, where he had to find a wife. His mother had been pushing him in that direction for years. Now, with the passing of his father, he had to consider the security of his Dukedom. He had to have an heir. This, truly, was the reason he was here. To appease his mother in searching for a wife. He hadn’t expected to find anyone he liked until he’d seen her. He’d persuaded her chaperone, her older sister, to make a formal introduction.
Cornelius stood quietly as her sister addressed Arabella. At first, she seemed to not comprehend what her sister was saying, but when she did, he could see her swallowing hard and then looking up at him. Her beautiful dark brown eyes were soulful, and her presence was one of serenity.
“Excuse me?” She said as she gazed at him, apparently still confused.
Her sister raised her eyebrows.
“His Grace asked to dance the Boulanger with you, which is beginning in a moment.”
He noticed her glancing around at the neighboring table, observing the older women who watched the exchange with interest. Determined to impress her, he bowed before her.
“It would be my honor if you could give me this dance,” he said.
Her face lit up then, and she nodded, getting up. She curtsied with a smile.
“The honor would be mine, Your Grace.”
He extended his arm toward her and, side-by-side with her sister Beatrice, they walked to the dance floor. Couples were already lining up for the next dance, while the previous dance wound down.
“Can you believe it? He asked her to dance! What is the matter with him?” A voice whispered. He turned and saw several ladies seated at a table, large fans in front of their faces, thus making it impossible to tell who was speaking.
“Surely, he must be desperate if he is asking Arabella Green to dance! Perhaps he was a puff guts himself one day.” Another woman said. He frowned at the unkind words, unable to comprehend why they were so unpleasant to the lovely young woman. Shaking it off, he turned to her.
“I must warn you, Lady Arabella, I am a rather dreadful dancer. You are best advised to guard your feet.” He winked at her, hoping that he sounded charming rather than pathetic. It was great relief she smiled back at him.
“Not to worry, Your Grace, I shall make sure my feet are quite safe. And I am rather light on my feet when dancing, so do not worry about yours.”
She tried to smile, but the comment stung him, for it was apparent it was a method of self-preservation. To poke fun at herself so nobody else could. He was familiar with the maneuver, one he’d long employed himself.
“I had not even considered it.”
The dancers were leaving the dancefloor as the Scotch Reel ended, and a moment later, the Boulanger began. He took her hand, relishing the feeling of her gloved hand on his, and they stepped onto the dancefloor.
The palms of his hands were sweaty, and he hoped she would not be able to tell through the fabric.
Why am I so nervous? It is just a dance. I have danced with many ladies in my time.
He chided himself, although he’d long ago learned to not let his insecurities show. On the outside, he ensured he appeared as confident as a man of his station should be. As the music started, she began to move gracefully across the dancefloor, her joy evident on her face.
“You love to dance, I see.”
“I do, it is one of my favorite activities,” she twirled, her dress playing gently around her curves.
“Do you come to the Almack often?”
She glanced up at him, a slight smile on her face.
“I am afraid so.”
“That does not sound as though you enjoy it, yet you dance with such ease.” They twirled, following along with the other couples. Cornelius noted that a few of them were throwing them rather dirty looks.
“I love to dance, but I am not keen on balls, I must admit. I never get to dance much at them anyhow, Your Grace.”
She seemed to find it difficult to look him directly in the eyes, often just briefly looking at him before reverting her gaze at something or someone else in the room. It was this vulnerability, the shyness that made her even more endearing to him.
“Any Lord who does not ask you for a dance is a fool. I have observed some of the other ladies, and you are by far the best dancer I have seen all night.” It was true, although, by the grimace that crossed her face, she did not believe him. “In any case,” He changed the subject. “I am not fond of balls either. I must confess, I have not been to London for the Season in many a year, and back home, we do not have a great many balls.”
Her eyes widened and surprise. “You have not attended a Season in years? I must ask, how did you manage to avoid it? I will gladly follow suit, I declare!”
He chuckled, ignoring everything and everyone around them as they moved smoothly to the music.
“I’m afraid there is no great secret. I simply had no occasion to go. I only recently became Duke, and now it is necessary for me to be here to attend the House of Lords, in my father’s stead.”
Her smile vanished, and empathy filled her lovely face. “I am sorry, Your Grace. For the loss of your father.” She squeezed her gloved hand around his for a moment, the small gesture comforting him.
“Thank you, Lady Arabella. You are so very kind. The truth is, I was fortunate to have him in my life for as long as I did. Many do not enjoy as long as life as he. I learned a great many things from him, which will serve me well in my new role. I hope.”
At last, she looked up and held his gaze.
“You will. And do not fret, these balls might be tedious, but once you are wed, you will no longer have to attend, unless you choose to. My sister does not. Well. She has to chaperone me, but otherwise, she’d gladly stay away also.”
“I understand her feelings. I hope I will not have to make many appearances at these types of events.” He paused and winked at her. “I plan to be wed soon. If for no other reason than to soothe my mother’s fragile nerves. The thought of her passing without my having an heir is rather vexing to her.”
He’d meant it as a joke; however, the young woman’s face froze.
“Have I upset you?”
She shook her head. “Not at all, Your Grace. I just thought about how sad it is that we must follow the path set forth by our parents. Although as Duke, you have more freedom than some of us.”
He sighed, knowing it was true. He had no obligation to wed for even if he chose not to, the estate would go to his uncle. The line would not die out. However, he could never do that to his mother.
“I supposed that is right. Although I would never disappoint my mother. Not by choice.”
She nodded at the sentiment. “Neither would I. Nor my father. Although they both went against their parents’ wishes,” she smiled and shook her head, amused by their story.
Cornelius raised his eyebrows at this statement. “How so?”
She stepped back and twirled along with the other ladies and then rejoined his side.
“My father was expected to wed a lady of high society. He was the future Earl of Braewood, after all. My grandfather had a lady in mind for him already, but then he met my mother. He was on his Grand Tour and visiting Spain when he met her.”
“I see,” he said, nodding his head in understanding. He’d wondered where she’d gotten her beautiful olive skin and dark hair from, a feature not common among English ladies who seemed obsessed with the notion that paler was better. Personally, he’d always disliked the vast amounts of powder many ladies applied to their faces.
“Her father was a wine merchant. Today that might be acceptable, but my grandparents had some trouble warming to my mother.” Her face grew sad. “Even today, they favor my English aunt over my mother and my sister Beatrice over me.” She paused before adding, “Because Beatrice takes after Papa and I… ,” she shrugged.
“You, Lady Arabella, are beautiful,” the word came out of his mouth before he could stop himself, drawing a gasp not only from Arabella but from several dancers beside him. He’d apparently spoken loud enough for others to hear him.
“Beautiful? He is in need of spectacles!” One man said with venom in his tone.
“He must be rather desperate for a wife,” a woman snickered.
What vile people. What truly wicked individuals we are surrounded by?
He caught Arabella’s look and saw the hurt and insecurity in her eyes. The moment she noticed him looking at her, she averted her gaze. He wanted to comfort the young woman and take away the sting of the hateful words. He knew how much they hurt. He’d experienced it all himself.
He shuddered at the memory of those times, so long ago. An uncomfortable tingle spread across his arms and down his spine. The old memories washed over him like a wave, robbing him of his ability to utter words of comfort to her. Instead, he swallowed and continued to dance with her in silence.
Suddenly, all he could hear were the whispers around him, the unkind remarks about both of them. His heart broke for her. He realized her larger than average body, beautiful as he thought it was, had to be a source of struggle for her.
He did what she had done earlier, he squeezed her hand a little tighter, letting her know he was there, and he understood. She acknowledged his gesture with the faintest of smiles.
Being near her made me feel calmer than I have in many years. But these snobs around us are threatening to ruin it all.
A part of him wanted to stay and ask her for another dance, perhaps even ask her to take the air. But the old feelings of insecurity and discomfort were overwhelming him. From the corner of his eye, he saw the conductor bring the music towards its end. In a moment, the dance would be over, and he would have to make a decision. Fight the urge to flee or give in and run.
As the music wound down, he held on tighter to her hands, feeling her grip onto him as well, as though she wanted to hold on to him, as he to her. And yet, the voices around them, those mocking voices were all he could hear.
“What an odd pair.”
“What a disgrace she is, and what of him? An odd duck.”
“How embarrassed her parents must be.”
He swallowed as the music ended, pushing the ugly words away. He had to focus on her. She was the target, much more so than he.
“Thank you for the dance, Lady Arabella. It was truly a pleasure.”
She blushed then, “You are too kind.” She hesitated, blinking, “Your Grace.”
“Perhaps…” he had just found the courage to ask for another dance when behind him, a man’s voice hissed the words that always struck him deeper than anything else.
“I wonder what deformity he is hiding that makes him have to stoop so low as to dance with that fussocks.”
The words pierced his heart, and he let go of her hands. He was about to turn away when he balled his hands into fists once more, pressing his fingernails into his skin and leaned toward her. “You are beautiful, Lady Arabella. Always remember that.”
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