About the book
He has no time for games…She’s ready to play...
With her father leading a life of debauchery, Lady Aphrodite is the laughing stock of London. Still, she pretends to wear her reputation of a hoyden like a badge of honor.
Cheated on and humiliated across every acre of the Ton, Oswald Bristol, the Earl of Tennesley, needs to find a timid wife this time. But relying on a matchmaker seems more than ridiculous to him.
Except, an odd thing happens when the man who has spent his life being proper overhears a lady of loose morals calling him a bore. Determined not to let this slight pass, he takes it upon himself to prove her wrong. Even if that means putting her in greater danger than he realizes.
“I am not going.” Aphrodite was a second away from stomping her foot, but she would have to get up from the dining table for it to make an impact. “And what is the sense of going to a matchmaker anyway? I can find my own husband.”
Her father, William Newfield, Viscount of Kingsley lazily reached for his wine goblet. “The past three-and-a half-years have not proven that. You are two-and-twenty, Aphrodite, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood. If you do not marry soon, you will be on the shelf forever and become a laughingstock in the ton.”
“But Lady Pandora Ravenswood?” Aphrodite exclaimed.
William put his goblet down and leaned on the arm of his chair. “You two were friends from finishing school, were you not? What is the problem then?”
Huffing out a breath, she dropped her utensils. The once delicious stuffed pheasant held no enticement for her anymore. “She peddles gossip for a living and has managed to fool the ton that she is a matchmaker with a perfect success rate in her matches. How can you believe that?”
“It matters not if I believe it or if I do not,” her father poured more wine in his goblet. “At this point I must try everything to get you married as your efforts are proving themselves fruitless.”
“No buts!” His blues eyes, mirrors of the same ones Aphrodite saw in the mirror every day bored into her, but now were as sharp and cutting as ice shards. “This is not a negotiation, Aphrodite. You are going to her tomorrow and will stay at her country Estate until you are matched. It is April now and the season ends in June. You have two months to find a suitor and marry. That is all!”
With her stomach roiling and anger lancing through her heart, she gazed at the plate and again felt no sign of hunger. Plucking the napkin from her lap, she dropped it on the table and stood. “I suppose it would benefit me to start packing.”
“It would,” William agreed.
She paused to twist her head and saw her father gazing into his goblet with a frown, as if someone else had drank his wine instead of him. He was still in his silk robe, and it could be that mere hours ago, some young woman had been discreetly sent away from the Manor after…servicing him.
Though her quarters were a wing away from his, Aphrodite was not foolish; she knew her father indulged in women. She could not count the times she had taken her horse out for a ride and spotted a woman in the window of her father’s room, just before the curtains were dropped.
After her mother had died seven years ago, he had mourned her for the requisite year, but then had begun to take lovers. He had been discreet at first, but in the last two years, the guise had been dropped. Her father did not give a whit who knew and had continued to keep his activities ongoing.
Leaving Aphrodite to bear the shame of it as well. Countless times had she seen Lords smirking licentiously at her and women sneering at her in disgust, as if she were an implicit part of her father’s actions.
Entering her suite in a huff, she found her maid, Lydia Barns, already packing up her trunks. Gritting her teeth she muttered. “I see Father told you before he even uttered a word to me.”
Pinking, Lydia looked up. “I’m sorry My Lady, if I—”
“No, no,” Aphrodite sighed as she went to her wardrobe. “It’s fine, you’ve done nothing. I just wish he had told me about this matchmaking nonsense beforehand.”
Pausing in her packing, Lydia, a young woman two years Aphrodite’s senior, came to sit beside her. “Are you unhappy about this?”
“Yes,” Aphrodite said. “And I think it’s useless. Matchmaking is a silly science. What is she going to do? Wave a magic wand and decide who is best for me? What if this perfect match is man in his sixties who only cares about cigars and hunting? What if he is a bore?”
Lydia cocked her head to the side, “Did His Lordship express that you must marry the man you are matched with?”
Blinking, Aphrodite said, “No.”
“Well, isn’t that your answer?” Lydia said. “You might match but you won’t have to marry.”
“Oh, I will marry,” Aphrodite said. “But on my terms. Matchmaking is humdrum and I plan to prove it.” A sly smile curved her lips. “Lydia, do you remember how Father kept saying I am a hoyden and that no one would marry me with those wild ways?”
“I think I might show him how impudent I can be,” Aphrodite said. “How many dresses have you packed?”
“About…” Lydia’s brows creased with thought, “about a dozen day dresses, the same number of evening wear and a few ball gowns.”
Aphrodite grinned, “I think we have some repacking to do.”
The foul taste in Oswald’s mouth woke him, and he grimaced. Blandly he noted not to drink sweet wine and then gulp Blue Ruin again. As he sat up from the bed, he silently thanked whatever powers above that the drapes were closed because he could feel the tenderness in his eyes and the thrumming headache at the base of his skull.
On a scale of what he had suffered before with overindulging in liquor, this was minimal. The silk sheets slipped down his chest like a wave of water and landed on his lap. He rubbed his eyes with his left hand, his right hand brushed something—no, someone.
Warm skin met his touch, and he did not have to think hard to realize who it was—a courtesan. Last night he had gone to an exclusive brothel that catered to the elite in London, trying—and failing—to rid himself of those horrid memories that plagued him. Especially because of that day, April first.
No wonder they call it All Fools Day. I was the King of them to believe Claire was faithful to me.
Shifting his feet to the side, he stopped when a hand rested on his back, “Where are you going, My Lord?” Even in sleep the courtesan’s voice was sultry with seduction. “Please stay and let us play a little more.”
“Can’t,” he said while reaching for his trousers.
She—Anne, Amelia, Annette?— reclined against the pillows, her dark-red hair tumbling over her shoulders, her large breasts on full display.
“Just one more round, My Lord,” she coaxed. “Can’t leave a lady wanting, can you?”
He finished his shirt and donned his trousers and boots. Standing, he gave her an empty look. “I must go, but I’m sure you’ll have others to keep you company after I leave.”
Without another look, he grabbed his coat and headed to the front room just in time for Madam Beatrice to come around the corner. Her handsome face was heavily painted and she was dressed in a low-cut day dress so gauzy he saw her nipples.
“Ah, Lord Tennesley,” she greeted with a curtsy, her sotto voce tone as calm, steady and unflappable as always. “On your way out, I believe?”
“Yes,” he said, “I just need my carriage.”
She came closer, her eyes running over his face. “May I offer you a cup of coffee? On the house, of course. You seem, overexerted.”
Oswald had to hold back a derisive snort. Overexerted—what a polite way to say he looked like death warmed over. He could feel it too, down in his bones, he felt cold, empty and hollow. The feeling had started to settle inside him the day he had gone to collect his unfaithful wife’s body from the morgue.
The rumor around the ton was that Claire had a revolving door when it came to men she entertained in the days he was away from home.
“Thank you, but no,” he bowed his head and turned to the door. Wincing at the sunlight, he went to call his carriage himself.
Pausing to look over his shoulder, he stared at the unimpressive brickwork of the brothel and sighed. It was his verdant hope that he would never have to go back there, but was there anything that would keep him away? What could possibly change that his life that would shift his life again? It could be something good.
And pigs would sprout wings and fly.
Mercifully, Oswald managed to slip into his Hall undetected by his mother and went to his chamber, to disrobe and fall into bed. He would call for a bath and coffee after he had a satisfactory nap, however, no sooner had he pulled the covers up when his mother’s rapid, hummingbird knock sounded on his door.
“Damnation,” he muttered under his breath. To his door, he lifted his voice, “One moment.”
Slipping out of bed, he snatched the dressing robe off the back of a chair and hurriedly donned it. Opening the door, his gaze dropped to his diminutive mother, Henrietta Bristol, Dowager Countess of Tennesley.
“Yes, Mother?” He heard the tiredness in his voice and at her sympathetic moue; she had heard it as well.
“Didn’t sleep well, Dear?” she asked.
He sagged on the doorjamb and raked a hand through his hair. “You might say that.”
She reached up and tapped his face, “I’m sorry, Dear, but your cousin Leo is here for breakfast, would you please come join us?”
“Mother—” he sighed, sagging on the wall as fatigue made his body heavy.
He rubbed his face. “Give me a few minutes to get somewhat presentable. I will be down soon.”
With a small smile, she nodded and went down the corridor, and Oswald retreated to his chamber. He went to his bathing chamber and dunked his hands into the basin to splash water on his face and rinsed his mouth so they would not smell the alcohol on his breath.
He didn’t bother with his hair, but slipped a pair of loose trousers under the robe and went to join his mother and priest cousin in the breakfast room.
Entering the room, he spotted his mother and Leo there conversing over cups of tea and coffee respectively. His mother’s light-blonde hair shimmered in the sunlight, while his cousin’s was a shade darker but still blond.
Leo, a priest in the Anglican Order was two years younger than Oswald’s eight-and-twenty and had this calm, serene air about him. He stood and smiled. “Ah, here is my cousin. Risen from the dead, I see.”
“Hardly,” Oswald stuck out a hand and shook his cousin’s. “I wasn’t aware you’re in town.”
“The Diocese afforded me a new apartment in London because I’m being transferred and will join the church at St. Bride’s.”
“Ah, good for you,” Oswald nodded as he took his seat, and poured out a large cup of coffee. “I suppose that means I will be seeing you much more, then.”
Swallowing a mouthful, Oswald felt the rich, bitter brew spread artificial warmth through his chest. “Wonderful.”
Then, his mother and Leo shared a look that caused suspicion to bloom in Oswald’s chest. He gently set the cup down and flicked a gaze between the two before he asked, “What are you two planning?”
Leo lifted his hand in surrender. “Not I, Cousin. I only came to give Aunt a listening ear to her idea.”
“What idea?” Oswald felt an ominous sinking feeling drag his stomach down to his feet.
His mother gave him a warm, sympathetic look that always made Oswald’s heart lurch. He hated that look, absolutely despised it, but he could not say a word about it. It was her right to pity him knowing—as all of London did—what his wife had done to him. But he had hoped that after a year, that look would have vanished; sadly he was wrong.
“Oswald, I know you are still hurting, and it is plain that you spend your nights in solitude, but I think that is only harming you more,” his mother said pleadingly. “I think it’s time for you to find a demure woman, marry and have an heir.”
“Mother—” Oswald groaned.
“I know it will be difficult, but you must try,” she said. “Sooner or later, you will do it, but it will be much harder if you wait.”
“She is right, Cousin,” Leo spoke up in that quiet, steady, priestly tone that grated on Oswald’s nerves. “The more you shrink from life, the harder it will be to integrate with it later on.”
Looking between the two, Oswald found that he was outnumbered. He could object and tell them that he did not need any help, but he felt it hard to reject his mother. She had allowed him months to mourn and had never objected to his life.
How hard would it be to oblige her for this once?
Oswald was hiding from the world, and he knew it. Unable to keep his bluster up, he rubbed his forehead. “And how do you propose I do this?”
“You agreed to attend Lady Pandora Ravenswood’s soiree a few weeks ago,” his mother reminded him. “The ball is tonight. But you must make an impression. Lady Ravenswood only takes twelve men and twelve women to her country Estate for the matchmaking.”
“Ah, the indomitable Matchmaker of London,” Oswald said dryly. “I hear she is a force to be reckoned with.”
“It seems so,” Henrietta smiled kindly. “Which is why I think she is your best option to find a fitting match.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll attend, but no promises.”
His answer made his mother frown a little, but she managed to smile anyway. “It’s a start, that’s all I want.”
With a curt nod, Oswald poured himself another cup. “Will you be coming with me tonight, Leo?”
His cousin’s lips stretched into a good-natured grin, “I’m not suited for being a society lady’s husband,” he said. “I think its best if I marry a humble country miss who knows how to cook hare stew and knows the cure for infant colic.”
“Suit yourself,” Oswald said, while filling his plate with coddled eggs and slivers of ham. Thinking about Claire’s barefaced adultery his heart chilled. “Maybe that’s best, God forbid you end up with a wife like mine.”
An uncomfortable lull dropped over them, and Oswald looked up to see the mirroring uneasiness on both his mother and his cousin’s face. He lifted a brow. “I’m sorry. Was that uncomfortable?”
The Ravenswood townhome in Grosvenor Square looked fairly new, as far as the other stately London homes went. Tall columns of cream-colored marble rose up to gilded Corinthian capitals where they met the painted roof. Oswald stepped out onto the marble steps and headed to meet the livered footman at the door.
After showing his invitation, he was directed to the parlor where the guests would mingle before going to the main ballroom. Cream-and-gold gilt wallpaper matched the tiered chandeliers above and Oswald noted members of some of London’s most titled families were there.
If they were all there to find fitting mates, he might not measure up enough to be chosen. Then again, which lady in her right mind would choose me? I’m the cuckold of London—a laughingstock.
Already, he could feel gazes skirting up the side of his neck and tried not to turn around and glare at those who were staring. If they were all there for the same thing, who were they to judge?
He smoothly snagged a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and downed half of it. A part of him had expected cut-rate champagne, but he was only tasting pure, rich, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin.
Dryly gazing around the room, he found the eyes of Lady Faven, a Baroness who had lost her husband in a similar fashion as he had lost his wife, only her spouse had been poisoned and not stabbed. She lifted her glass to him, and he replied in kind. Maybe she could be his match; they would have similar stories to share.
“Lord Tennesley in the flesh. I thought you had gone off to be a monk,” a teasing voice said. He turned and saw a young woman he had never seen before, but clearly knew him.
She was lovelier than he’d expected, slender and petite, with a fine and delicate facial structure and a perfect, bow-shaped mouth. Her skin glowed with health and vitality, and her blonde hair was piled up on her head and cascaded down her back, showing the thickness and luster of the mass.
Her brilliant blue eyes held his while he inclined his head. “You have me at a disadvantage, My Lady. You know who I am, but I am a bit at a loss of who you are—?”
Her brows lifted. “And here I thought my father’s reputation would precede me. I’m Aphrodite Newfield, daughter of the Viscount of Kingsley. I, however, have heard of you. My sympathies on your late wife, but you’ve been hiding away from the world. Why?”
“Well, I suppose I went into hibernation,” he said dryly.
“Funny enough, a few people thought you were dead,” she remarked.
“In many ways I was,” he said, while looking into his flute. “But I’ve come back from the proverbial grave.”
“I can see that,” she remarked. “And in good style too. I think it’s good to see you defying the odds.”
“And those odds are?”
“That you would dare to get married again,” she replied. “I mean, if you are here with the rest of London’s outcasts, aren’t you looking for a match?”
Cocking his head, Oswald asked, “Where are you going with this, My Lady?”
A flirtatious smile made the mischief in her eyes grow more apparent. She clinked his flute with hers. “I think its commendable of you to show the detractors that they are wrong in their assumptions. Good evening, My Lord.”
He could not stop his eyes from following her and his lips pursed when he saw another woman dressed in gray—probably her maid—hurry after her. “What a curious, sphinxlike young lady,” he murmured.
“Viscount Kingsley’s daughter is an enigma,” a man next to him said. Then he gave Oswald a contrite smile. “I apologize for listening to you two, but I must give you a word of caution. What she said about her father is true, he is a Lothario.”
“And you are?”
“Quentin Draven, Earl of Easton,” the man with dark-red hair, dark-brown eyes and a slanted grin, stuck out his hand. “At your service.”
“Oswald Bristol, Earl of Tennesley,” he replied while shaking. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. So, you’re here…with the rest of us castoffs.”
Swirling his drink, Quentin said, “Sadly. It seems that I am not social enough to find a wife, so…here I am.”
“Join the club,” Oswald muttered. “For one thing, I think this service is smokescreen humdrum, so don’t be too disappointed if nothing happens.
“I don’t know,” Quentin mentioned, while sticking his hand into his pocket. “You never know. It might be truer than you think.”
“And I’ll eat my boots,” Oswald snorted. “This will only end up as material in her gossip column. No one will marry, mark my word.”
Not utterly thrilled at being called away from Earl Tennesley, Aphrodite leisurely walked over to where Lady Pandora was standing. She had spotted him the second the earth-bound Titian had entered the room, and for the first time, and despite being ordered to do so, she thought she might not have made a terrible mistake in coming there.
His dark-brown hair was pell-mell, falling into thickly knitted brows and broody blue eyes that would prod people to look away, yet they took her breath away. Her gaze was drawn to the sun-bronzed, dusky hue of his skin and his excellently tailored suit fit his frame with precision.
The dark formal suit highlighted the breadth of his shoulders, the wide expanse of his chest as it tapered down to a lean waist and hips. There were rumors about his excellent fencing and equestrian skills, and if true, it showed in his muscular thighs, straining the fabric of his well-fitting trousers.
“Aphrodite,” Lady Pandora said, tucking a strand of her impeccable blonde hair behind her ear. “Color me surprised at seeing you here.”
“I agree,” Aphrodite replied. “But I suppose seeing a certain person here has made up for it.”
“Earl Tennesley,” Lady Pandora said mirthlessly. “Aphrodite, I know about your penchant for throwing yourself into waters too deep—”
“But I always swim to the surface,” Aphrodite shot back.
“And this is the same,” Lady Pandora said. “Might be worse, though. Lord Tennesley is a complicated man with very, for the lack of other words, convoluted issues. It would be best if you steered clear of him.”
Crossing her arms under her bosom, Aphrodite said, “I didn’t want to come to this soirée at all, but Father made me. I came with my doubts, but then I saw him.”
“He is at least six years older than you,” Lady Pandora said. “At eight-and-twenty, he has lived through experiences you have no inkling about.”
Aphrodite knew that and could barely hold herself from rolling her eyes. She knew the Earl was older and remembered the first time she had seen him three years ago when she was nine-and-ten. Even then, he had captured and commanded her attention, and now that she had the chance to truly interact with him, she was not going to lose it.
“If you are speaking about his late wife, I know about it,” Aphrodite said staunchly. “It’s public knowledge.”
“But you do not know that he blindly turned an eye to his wife’s adultery,” Lady Pandora said. “When she was found, dead, stabbed through the heart with a twisted dagger, obviously by one of her many lovers, he went on as if he had not realized a thing, when the whole ton knew. He’s weak, Aphrodite, and will not be able to handle a high-spirited lady like you.”
Even while understanding Lady Pandora’s claim, Aphrodite had her reservations. From what she had heard, Oswald had loved his wife to the point of blindness, as if she had been a goddess worthy of a lofty pedestal.
Tilting her head up, Aphrodite said, “There could be many reasons for that. It could be that he is weak in holding a firm hand on his house, or he was just weak in love with his wife, I don’t know, but I do know that nothing is ever black and white.”
“Whatever the gray area is, you should not have any part of it,” Lady Pandora said. “Besides, the man is staid, proper, boring, you would not have anything in common with him.”
Seeing her friend was not going to relent, Aphrodite lied. “I suppose, I wouldn’t want to be with a weak, spineless man that cannot excite or entertain me.”
“Good,” Lady Pandora said.
“But,” she added, “I still believe that what you have told me is half the story and I plan to find out the rest. I highly doubt that he would let something as humiliating and mortifying get out of hand if he was aware of it.”
“I came here on behest of my father, and I have no faith in matchmaking. I am sure that I can find my husband on my own.”
“I know, your father specifically requested that I take you in,” Lady Pandora said.
She turned on her heel. “I would love to change my mind. If you can prove me wrong, please, do so.
She walked away, and re-joined the other guests, snagging another flute of champagne and looking around for Lord Tennesley. She spotted him talking with another lord, but something was…odd. He looked much tenser than when she had spoken with him and she wondered why.
While she went to speak with some other ladies, she kept Lady Pandora in her peripheral vision and saw how she moved from group to group with a particular look on her face.
Her friend’s assessing eyes seemed to miss nothing and when her lips ticked up or down, Aphrodite wondered if it meant approval or disapproval. Was this how she was going to deem those fitting for her services?
Maybe Lady Pandora was still miffed from the conversation she had with her moments ago, but Aphrodite was not going to go shift from her decision. She was sure about what she had told Lady Pandora. Either Oswald was a weak man, or he tricked himself into believing that his wife was an innocent. She was hell-bent on finding out which.
She could not hold on to either reason until she found out because she knew how damaging perceptions were. The ton took her to be a lightskirt because her father was a Lothario, and while her flirting could explain it, nothing was further than the truth.
That was what she was trying to tell Lady Pandora, but her friend did not know what it was to live under constant skewed perceptions. Nothing was as it seemed, and Aphrodite would not judge the Earl for his wife’s errors when others were bias against her for her father’s.
Looking around Aphrodite speculated there were at least thirty-five or forty people in the room, but only twenty-four would be picked to be taken to Lady Pandora’s country Estate.
What are the odds that Lord Tennesley will win this lottery?
A bell chimed, drawing the attention to Lady Pandora who stood in the middle of the room. Her rose-gold gown was cut in the latest classical fashion, it gathered under her bosom and fell in a soft, graceful column to her feet.
“Good evening, everyone, would you please adjourn to the ballroom, the dancing is about to begin,” she said.
Aphrodite waited while most of the guests went to the stairs, searching for Lord Tennesley. She spotted him with his gaze trained on the door and feared that he was going to leave. She decided to follow him, but a red-headed Lord got to him first.
Their conversation was low, and she could not hear it, but it seemed convincing as Lord Tennesley, who she was sure was about to leave, moved to the ballroom. She followed a few paces behind and entered the ballroom while the quartet orchestra was beginning a waltz.
It seemed like most of the couples were partnered off already and Aphrodite took a chance. She gently touched his shoulder and when he turned, asked, “Seems like everyone else is partnered. Will you dance with me?”
His jaw worked and anger flashed across his eyes but his tone was mild. “How curious. You, asking me, to dance.”
“And what does that mean?” Aphrodite asked, her eyes narrowing.
His lips quirked and without a word, he rested a hand in the small of her back and escorted her to the floor. Oswald’s expression confused her but as the sweet melody wrapped itself around them, she temporarily ignored how he looked and allowed him to whisk her off to the floor where they took the proper positions.
When her eyes met his, a blistering sapphire fire lit his eyes as controlled anger burned beneath his polished facade. Thick waves of tension pulsed off his powerful frame, and her body reacted in the most confusing ways, instead of recoiling from him, she wanted to press herself closer to revel in his potent energy.
Her limbs trembled and she had to focus to remember the steps while his gaze held her attention prisoner. He spun her, drawing her close enough that her bodice brushed against his jacket. Despite the heavy unease between them, they moved in flawless motion.
“Why against your better judgment?” she asked.
“I’m told you are a flirt,” he replied.
Her eyes dimmed. “It’s off-putting to some, I know.”
“It is,” Oswald said. “But in certain circumstances, it can be a good thing.”
Her hand inched a little up his shoulder and her gloved finger brushed the skin of his throat. He reacted as if a jolt of lightning had been jabbed through him. Thankfully, they were in a spin and when he came back, he had recovered, only to slide his hands lower, onto the curve of her spine.
“I have yet to master how to judge those situations, My Lord.”
Aphrodite’s gaze narrowed on him, the tense clench of his jaw, the tick of muscle in his cheek and harsh knit of his brows—but his eyes were not as hard as before. Indecision marked his gaze as the music rose in crescendo, and he twirled her with dizzying speed.
When they came together, she clung to him, hardly trying to control her heaving breast. Her gaze was fixed on his and her fingers dug into his arm. When his eyes flicked to her mouth, Aphrodite realized that if he kissed her right there, she would not be sorry.
But another place and another time.
“If that is the case, you should find someone to teach you, but not I.” he said.
She pulled away—she did not want to prove the rumors about her true, and besides she was not sure if Lord Tennesley was angry with her or if he was upset about the whole proceeding.
Better not poke an angry bear. “Thank you, My Lord,” she curtsied.
His reply was a curt nod before he walked off and again, Aphrodite could not shake the feeling that he was angry at her—but why? She drifted to the refreshments table in a daze. She sipped a glass of punch and tried to settle the emotions roiling in her chest. What was it about Lord Tennesley that stole her breath so many times?
The intense, incandescent flame in his eyes.
What would his eyes look like inflamed with passion, or dimmed with sorrow? Were they sharp with possession, dark with anger, bright with happiness?
“Pardon me, Lady Aphrodite?” A Lord spoke behind her, and she turned. He bowed. “I am Lord Exeter. May I have your hand for the dance?”
“I would be delighted, My Lord,” she put down the glass and took his hand.
Half the night went on that way with her not missing a single dance, but through it all she kept finding Lord Tennesley. As if he were a lodestone drawing her attention, she was always somewhere in his vicinity. They did not share a gaze, but when the skin on the back of her neck prickled, she knew he was staring at her.
When the ball broke for supper, she finally met his eyes and gave a small smile—but he turned away. Without reason, her stomach fell to her feet and she grew disconsolate. This could not be right; they had shared less than ten sentences with each other and a tension-filled dance, so how was it that him dismissing her made her feel…hollow? She didn’t know the man!
In the dining room, she forced her gaze away from him and went to find her seat. They were instructed to find their places by finding their names on a small card; she took her seat near to—confound it, Lord Tennesley.
She just saw her light dinner conversation flitter away into thin air. The Earl’s posture was so rigid she wondered if he would start to fracture at the seams.
“Enjoy,” Lady Pandora said, “but please do not open those cards until dinner is finished.” Feeling the coldness coming from her right, Aphrodite felt no desire to eat a thing, but still bit into her roasted pheasant, while Lord Tennesley favored his wine above his food.
Her finger itched to open the card but kept her fingers far from it. Was that her acceptance or rejection notice? Could Lady Pandora send her away knowing that her father wanted her there? She couldn’t touch her dessert and instead sipped her wine.
Lady Pandora touched her knife to her glass. “Thank you for your patience. I have thoroughly enjoyed your presence with me, but sadly not all of you will continue to my Estate. Please, open your cards to see your status.”
Trying to tamp down on her fear, Aphrodite pulled out her card and spun it. On the back was an eagle—and she was utterly confused. An eagle? What was that for? What did it mean?
She shot a look to Lord Tennesley and saw him staring impassively at a white wolf. Blinking quickly, she turned away. A wolf? Was that supposed to mean his personality? Did the eagle mean hers?
What was going on? And if the wolf was Lord Tennesley’s personal trait—why did Lady Pandora say he was weak? As far she knew, a wolf was brave and relentless, willing to risk their life to get what they wanted. How was that weak?
“I see some of you are surprised,” Lady Pandora said in that calm, soothing voice of hers. “If you see an animal on your card, it means you have traits I will work with and find your match. If your card is blank it means, sadly, you have not been accepted into my services. My sincerest apologies.”
Oh. Putting the card down, Aphrodite still had questions, but realized that they could wait until the next time she saw Lady Pandora. Looking at the card and at the fierce gaze of the bird, she wondered, was that how others saw her? Proud and untouchable?
“For the four-and-twenty have been chosen, please make your way upstairs to my main drawing room while I speak with the others,” Lady Pandora added.
Clutching her card, Aphrodite stood and made her way upstairs, following the rest of the crowd. At least she had passed one hurdle—the next…getting Lord Tennesley to see who she truly was, get him to like her and hopefully, more.
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