About the book
“You will be in love with me by the end of the month...”
Despite her promising marriage prospects, Lady Seraphina doesn’t care for any of her boring suitors. And the Christmas festivities seem to have awakened a naughty spirit in her she didn’t know she possessed.
Few gentlemen in the Ton have worse reputations than Christian Crawley, the Marquess of Daubend. Tormented by his tragic past, Christian is back to London and focused on one thing and one thing only: revenge.
In his efforts to seduce and hurt the feisty minx, he dares her: He will make her fall in love with him in less than a month. Only, he never had thought that introducing her to the world of pleasure would cause him to lose his heart first...
“Just one dance? Please?” Seraphina Farbridge’s attentions were focused on her younger sister, Vanessa, sitting beside her, but she would have much rather focused anywhere else in the room. Vanessa, as far as anybody was concerned, was little more than a wallflower. She could have blended into the floral prints on the wallpaper behind her and been perfectly content. Seraphina, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to explore the ballroom around them and everything it contained.
“I already told you, I do not wish to dance.” Vanessa’s hands were clasped demurely in front of her, dance card blank where it dangled from her wrist. Vanessa was the picture of elegance, dressed in her lovely pale-green gown with her hair a halo of curls draped prettily in an updo that highlighted her delicate bone structure. She was not sitting on the side of the room for want of suitors, but simply because she did not wish to engage.
“Yes, and as Mother has already told you, I am not to continue exploring the ballroom until I have convinced my sister to dance at least once. So, here I am.” Seraphina gestured to herself. “And here you are.” She gestured to her sister. “Now we must dance. You can pick a quick song; I will be content with any you choose, but you must choose… or I shall never be happy again.”
Vanessa lifted a brow as she glanced at Seraphina, clearly wishing to roll her eyes.
“Am I to understand that my beloved sister, my very dearest companion, does not care for her sister’s eternal happiness?” Seraphina batted her eyelashes at Vanessa, hoping to convince her to give in to her desires.
“You know that is not the case,” Vanessa snapped and then heaved a long-suffering sigh. “You know that Mother is only making you do this because you have had so much trouble containing yourself.”
“How am I at fault for my actions?” Seraphina hummed, “I am merely enjoying everything that the Season has to offer. I just do not want to miss out on a single event or ball, and, as I am sure that you have noticed, they all have their very own appeals.” —
Seraphina’s eyes were no longer on her sister but rather on the men that were mingling in the room, attempting to find the one that had caught her eye earlier this evening. He was a tall creature, standing a solid head above the rest of those who attempted to fill her dance card. Seraphina had insisted on saving one final spot for the mysterious man. She was intent on filling the said spot now. She only had to find him first.
“There is a difference between enjoying the ball and flaunting yourself all across the room.”
Seraphina gave her sister’s arm a playful swat. “Wounded by my own sister — I never thought that I would see the day.” Seraphina clicked her tongue in Vanessa’s direction. “Besides, I do not flaunt, I simply float. I shall not be blamed for the attentions given to me for the simple fact of my vibrancy. Really, you ought to thank me.”
In spite of herself, Vanessa laughed. “And why is that?”
“Because any match that I make is bound to only lead to bigger and better things for your own matches. Our dear elder sister, Bridgette, has already set the tone, and if I am to be forced to follow her footsteps into wedded contentment, then I want to see what else there is to experience beforehand.”
“Bridgette is very happily married,” Vanessa chided.
“Yes, yes, I do know that, Sister, but I cannot hope to find a match as perfect as her own, so I shall have to settle for the best that I can find in this room which starts with you selecting a single partner and dancing. Just one — how about that one? He looks quite handsome.” Seraphina pointed to a dandy-looking gentleman who stood the same height as Vanessa.
Vanessa made a face. “Certainly, you cannot be serious.”
“All right… perhaps not him, but he is a wonderful dancer. There has to be somebody that caught your eye? There are plenty of gentlemen here from all over this evening.” Seraphina was upholding her end of the conversation but only as far as she absolutely had to, and even then, her eyes were roaming about the ballroom in search of the one olive-skinned man with his brooding, mysterious eyes.
“You only wish to foist me off on the first man who looks my way!” Vanessa pulled her arm from her sister’s grasp and refused to move any further. “Unlike you, Seraphina, I am not looking for a husband, and even if I should find one, I want my match to be made from love, not circumstance! I am the third eldest, and I say I am entitled to a happy marriage.”
Irritation blossomed in Seraphina’s chest but only for a moment. It only took one actual look at her sister’s concerned features to make her see the error of her ways. “You are right. I am sorry, Sister. We might have different goals and intentions, certainly. However, just because a marriage of circumstance might arrive, does not mean that love will not follow! It happened for Bridgette, and I am certain that it will happen for you as well.”
“You are so determined that you will not find love for yourself?”
“Hardly. I simply do not wish to waste time focusing on something that might or might not happen. I can control what happens here, at this ball, and I am determined to enjoy every bit that I can.” Seraphina bit down on her bottom lip, not wishing to share her true motivations for checking every aspect of the ballroom and all of the potential suitors. In Seraphina’s opinion, it was not something that her sister needed to know just yet. “It is St. Nicholas’ Day. Is it so terrible that I wish to enjoy myself?”
Seraphina could pinpoint the exact moment that her sister caved. “All right. Fine,” Vanessa said and allowed them to turn toward a pair of gentlemen who had been watching their conversation with interest. “Just dancing though, Seraphina; if you attempt to seduce a man, I will tell Mother.”
“You would not dare.”
“I would. It is highly improper, and I will not stand by and watch you ruin yourself. If not for me, think of Amanda who has not even had a chance to be out in society yet.”
“I know; I know. I will not do anything to ruin Amanda’s prospects or yours, Vanessa. I simply do not want to miss my opportunities while I have them.” She knew that bringing up the conversation that she shared with Bridgette about men and the truths about the marriage bed was only going to anger her sister, and if she wanted to get her way, then she needed to keep her mouth shut. The truth was, Seraphina absolutely intended to seduce the mysterious tall man the moment that she found him. If she told Vanessa, then her sister would be obligated to attempt to stop her, so she said nothing. “I will behave; I promise.”
“Oh, I would trust that promise about as much as I would trust a cat promising not to eat fresh cream,” Vanessa scolded. “There is no point attempting to argue with you, is there?”
“None at all, my dear sister.” Seraphina patted her sister on the hand as she spoke. “There are a great many things in this room to focus your attention on, and while you might not favor it, there are many men who are quite pleased that you have finally joined the party.”
This news seemed to shock Vanessa, who flushed pink in the cheeks at the notion. “Surely this cannot be surprising news to you, Vanessa?” Seraphina asked.
“No!” Vanessa blurted quickly. “Well… not entirely, I suppose, but I do not think I have really considered it. You have had such a successful Season thus far that I have not wished to take away from your success or to really draw attention to myself—” Vanessa started to look very uncomfortable as she spoke.
“But you must know that any attention that you receive, so long as you welcome it, would be happy news to me? We are both equally out in society, and, so long as neither one of us lands somebody so loathsome as Lord Lork was to dear Bridgette, then we should consider ourselves successful indeed.” Seraphina moved closer to her sister as she spoke.
“Is it so terrible that I wish to enjoy my time as an unattached woman before I am forced to settle down with whatever man Uncle Tobias settles me with?” It was a nasty little trick Seraphina played now, appealing to her sister in this way. She would have to apologize for her behavior later. “What Mama does not know cannot harm her.”
Vanessa deliberated for a moment and finally caved. “Oh, very well then. I will keep your little secret, but I do not and cannot approve of your choices here. If you harm our prospects by your actions, sister or not, I shall never forgive you.”
“Thank you, Sister.” Seraphina moved closer and pressed a soft kiss into Vanessa’s cheek. “Now, what about that gentleman?”
“What? You cannot be serious.” Vanessa turned to look at the man her sister indicated, a tall blond man with a rather severe-looking face who was not unattractive for it.
“I am perfectly serious,” Seraphina said as she led them toward the man, who noticed their approach almost instantly and bowed his head in a formal greeting. Seraphina was happy to see that her sister at least seemed to like the look of him, even if it was to the point that she did not seem capable of forming coherent words to greet him. Vanessa was always the shyest of the sisters. Seraphina waited until Vanessa extended her arm toward the gentleman to add his name to her dance card before curtsying herself out of the conversation to allow them their dance.
Across the room, Seraphina caught the eye of her mother, Petunia, to let her know that the chore of finding her sister a dance partner had been accomplished, and, therefore, Seraphina was free to go out on her own. Seraphina knew that there was more than one man who would have been delighted if she would just stop to give them attention, to focus on them alone instead of admiring everything that the ball had to offer, but there was only one she desired this evening.
Uncle Tobias would kill her, of that much she was certain, so whatever she ended up doing, she knew that she was going to have to be rather careful about the entire situation. Her actions would need to be chosen delicately, so that neither her uncle nor his meddlesome son found out what she was up to.
It was certainly true that Seraphina was not known for her subtleness. She was not the sort of a woman to stand by and allow life to pass her by, and while she might not be the prettiest woman in any room by certain people’s standards, she knew how to entertain herself. She knew that she simply had to find a rake to suit her purposes, and then she would find out about the truth of what happens in a marriage bed, and if it was as pleasurable as her sister claimed it to be.
From the way that Bridgette described it, Seraphina would imagine it to be quite painful, and intrusive, but Bridgette insisted that was not the case. The way that her sister spoke about desire was what Seraphina wished to experience most of all. Above all else, she wanted that fluttering in her stomach and the anticipation of what might come next. She wanted to be overcome by her emotions. It was the exact opposite of everything that Seraphina had been told that a lady was… and there was no way that she could ever ask her mother about it.
“There you are,” Seraphina muttered to herself upon spotting the tall, olive man she had focused her attention on earlier this evening. He seemed absorbed in conversation with two men on either side of him, and that suited her just fine as well.
“My Lady, I was hoping to catch your eye.” A gentleman who Seraphina had hardly noticed stepped in front of her as she started toward her intended target.
“Ah, My Lord, good evening.” Seraphina sounded bored and more than a little droll. She refused to meet his eye and dipped in a short bow for lack of anything better to do in order to end the conversation quickly. “If you will excuse me,” she started, but he was not to be so easily deterred, it would seem.
“I noticed that you had one spot left on your dance card this evening, and I was thinking that perhaps we could share another dance?”
That caught her attention, and she looked at him with a critical glance. “Pardon me, My Lord, but have we danced together before?” Certainly not tonight, for she would have remembered the way that his nose resembled a pepper. It seemed to protrude from his otherwise potato-like face with his features all mushed together as if he had gotten into one too many brawls and lost each and every one of them.
“Not this evening, My Lady, but at a ball earlier in the Season; I confess that I have not forgotten about you. You have plagued my thoughts since that first dance, and I have looked for you ever since in order to… share in the experience for a second time. I do wish to impress to you that I am a lovely dancer most days, and the incident of our first encounter will not transpire again.”
Seraphina listened to the gentleman fumble through the conversation and, now that he had brought it up, she recalled the incident that he spoke of. She wished that he had not. He had trodden on her foot not once, not twice, but three times. The very last thing that she wanted to endure was another dance with him. “Well, I am sure that you are a lovely dancer, but, perhaps, I am simply not the partner most suited to you.” Seraphina offered the man a half of a smile before attempting to sidestep him, and he followed, blocking her path with his body.
“I cannot take no for an answer; I am certain that you only wish to grow my affections by playing hard to get, and while I am more than happy to give you chase, I just do not see the point in playing games.”
Seraphina blinked and stared at the man as if he had sprouted boils all over his face. She could not seem to figure the path that his mind had taken to get from her refusal to be near him to him feeling he had the right to interrupt her or even that she was playing games with his affections. “Are you daft?” Seraphina blurted before she could stop herself, but the damage was done. All kindness evaporated from the gentleman’s face.
“Apologies, My Lord, but are you ill? Seeing things that do not exist? I am certain that there is a parlor nearby where you can rest if the activities of the evening have gone to your head already.” She always hated it when people accused her of being too emotional, and, needing a break, she was only too happy to turn the tables on him this time.
“If I were interested or simply playing hard to get, do you not think that I would have sought you out? Even just one time since you attempted to hobble me for life?” She did not make a habit of speaking so harshly to those around her, but she wanted to ensure that her point was made, and that he would understand her intentions and whole lack of interest.
The man clearly wanted to answer, and she could tell that she had angered him. She could not allow herself to make a scene here, for that would risk the one gentleman that she did still wish to dance with to form a negative opinion of her.
“You will have to excuse me, Sir, I must attend to my Mother.” Seraphina nodded her head in his direction as sarcastically as she could manage and turned to find her ‘mother’ only to see that her handsome stranger was missing once again.
Drat. Where did he go?
“Tell me why you insist on dragging me to these balls every Season, Uncle.” Christian Crawley was bored. Impossibly so. Perhaps not for the lack of entertainment around him but rather for the absence of intelligent conversation. Neither the Holiday decor in the hall, the overly festive music, nor the brightly colored additions to the gowns appealed to him. Despite having a Holiday birthday, Christian never cared for Christmas music. Or anything to do with the celebrations of this time of year, actually. At least the wine was to his liking, even if nothing else about the elaborately decorated hall appealed to him.
“Well, if you would perhaps take a little bit of time to dance with a lady or two in the room, then you might not be so unhappy; Nephew, there are plenty of women here without partners, and, I dare say, you should have nothing but luck with any one that you turn your focus to.” Mortimer Crawley spoke over the brim of his glass. Christian had lost count of the number of times that the crystal had been refilled since their arrival. The man was rosy cheeked with good humor, and, under any other circumstances, Christian would have been delighted to see the man who raised him so happy.
Not this particular evening though. As it turned out, Mortimer Crawley had a secret.
One that he had ominously lain hints to that had Christian practically jumping in his skin to know whatever it was that was being kept from him, but his uncle kept simply insisting that now was not the time, and that they ought to enjoy themselves this evening as much as they were able to do so.
“What would make me happy, would be to leave here, and for you to finally tell me what information you have been dangling in front of me.”
“Well, if I tell you, then you will not enjoy the evening any longer.”
“That does not make me wish to know any less.” Christian took a sip of his wine slowly. “As it stands, I am only here to consume their wine reserves, so it would make no difference to me if I do that here or in the comfort of my own Hall.”
“You mean to tell me that there is not a single woman here to interest you to kick off the Christmas Season properly?”
“Absolutely not, though if you have spotted one, be my guest. I shall happily be your alibi for your wife and say that you were nothing more than a perfectly respectable chaperone. Never mind that I am far from needing one of those. Besides, you know as well as I do that if I dance with a single woman in this ball, then I will be declaring open Season on myself, and that is yet another thing that I do not wish to endure if I do not have to.”
“I am rather surprised that the mothers have not attempted to corner you for their daughters already.”
Christian chuckled. “That is the benefit of keeping a low profile and the ability to stare down anybody who should look at me sideways when I do not wish it.”
“I wondered why you were giving such dirty looks to those around you.”
“They were not dirty looks.” Christian laughed and then attempted to squish the sound, so that nobody knew that it came from him. “They were merely discouraging looks, that is all.”
“But it would make them so very happy to see their daughters dancing with a Marquess! Nephew, you are so selfish. Imagine how a simple dance with you could fill the rumor mill of the ton for at least a day or two. It is simply unkind of you to deprive all of these miserable mothers who want nothing more than to make a profit off of foisting their daughters onto the nearest titled gentleman.”
Christian could not help himself, he laughed again. “It is such a fortunate thing indeed, Uncle, that you did not have a child at all, let alone a daughter. What a terror that poor child would have been when you unleashed her on the ton.”
“Oh, I am not so certain of that, Nephew; I think that we did a lovely job raising you, and despite my continued bad influence on you, you have yet to make a terror of yourself in any setting! Oh, yes, I have heard the rumors about your deviant behavior as everyone has, but that is hardly enough to make you stand out. Nearly every member of our club has the same reputation from their youth as yourself. Why, you are practically tame compared to myself in my younger years.”
“Before Aunt Roberta set her eyes on you, perhaps. We both know how quickly she put an end to all of that, do we not?” Christian’s voice warmed in obvious affection for the woman that he now spoke about. Aunt Roberta was like a mother to him, having taken him in after the murder of his own mother.
“Yes, well, had she not threatened to spread all sorts of nasty rumors about me, I do not think that I ever would have settled down.” Mortimer sighed into his glass as if recalling the events of his own youth such a long time ago.
“You speak as if she forced you into a marriage when we both know that simply is not true, whether she is a gossip or not.”
“She is,” Mortimer answered.
“That was never really in question,” Christian agreed.
The men looked out over the crowd of smiling, happy faces that were merrily dancing around the room: lines of people in their dance formations and small clusters of people speaking animatedly to one another. If he focused on them, Christian could hear them discussing details of their children’s gifts from earlier in the day or the various things that had filled out the rest of their Holiday.
Christian simply had no desire to engage in conversations about his Holiday plans, because, despite having his birthday on Christmas Day, the Holiday Season was not a source of joy for him. It had very little to do with the Holiday itself or a lack of desire to get older, but rather it was reluctance to dwell on the terrible memories of things that had happened in his life during the Christmas Season.
“Well, I had hoped to at least distract you from my bad news with a pretty woman that might have caught your eye, but I can see now that is unlikely to happen. As much as I enjoy standing on the sidelines here with you, I suppose that I might as well tell you what I have learned while there is still enough wine in you to cushion the blow.”
That comment alone and all that it implied would be more than sufficient to ensure that Christian sobered up immediately, no matter how much he chose to drink over the course of the evening. “What is it? What has happened?”
“Nothing… nothing so terrible.” Mortimer obviously did not wish to share the information with his nephew, who was practically a son to him. “It is just, well, I have come to find out some information. I know that despite my urging you against it, and all of the warnings that I have attempted to discourage you with, I know that you have been making more inquiries as to your mother’s death.”
“Murder,” Christian interjected, his face darkening from the heavy subject matter.
“Right. That.” Mortimer echoed, quickly taking a deep drink from his wine glass to empty it as if he needed the moment to gather the courage within himself to continue speaking. “So as I was saying, I know that you have been looking for more information here in London, and while your aunt and I are ever so happy to have you visit as often as you like, we know that to be the true reason that you have returned from your travels in Europe.”
“Is that so terrible? I am uncertain as to how this is bad news.” Christian was focused so intently on the conversation at hand that he tuned out the rest of the ballroom entirely. He knew that something sinister was about to be brought into their conversation, and he wished to get it over with as quickly as possible.
“Well, my dear boy, that lead that you told me about some time ago… I took into it myself to investigate your claims. You see, I had wished to dissuade you.” Mortimer grew more visibly uncomfortable by the moment as he stood there, shifting from one foot to the other subtly so as to give him a moment to gather his thoughts before continuing. “I had hoped that if only I could prove your theories incorrect, then I would be able to put to bed this theory that your mother was murdered once and for all. I did this out of love because I wish nothing more than to give you closure on the subject; you know how dearly I cared for your mother and father both.”
“I do, Uncle… please speak plainly.” Christian felt as if a weight had settled in his chest. The anticipation of whatever his uncle was about to say felt like it might smother him if the matter was drawn out any further than it already was.
“There is a development, my boy, and before you get your hopes up or react to anything too drastically, I am forced to remind you of your social obligations here. I understand that you have taken a dive into the new Earl of Evan’s personal affairs, and I also have cause to remind you that my business dealings with the Farbridge family go back further than you know, so—”
“You detest the Farbridge family, Uncle; what concern of yours is it if I look into their affairs? I have heard the rumors about him around the club, I have heard of the nieces that he has been burdened with, and most of all, I know all about the sour business dealings that he pulled between you and my father during my infancy. In truth, Uncle, I have never heard of a man as slippery as Tobias Farbridge. My research into his alibi for the evening in question puts him at the same party as my mother was shortly before her death, and while you might not feel that it was a malicious poisoning, I know in my heart this is true.”
“You have no way to prove this definitively, Nephew, I beg of you not to do anything drastic. You need to leave things as they are… your mother was very sickly after your birth—”
Christian’s lip curled in distaste. He knew very well what his uncle’s position on the matter was, and while he knew that Mortimer spoke out of love, he was unwilling to allow such a thing to dissuade him. It had been his fondest wish for the majority of his life to know the truth about what happened to his mother. No force on Earth would pull him from it, no matter how many distractions he allowed himself in the course of finding out the truth. “I will stay put, for now, Uncle, but should I get more information, I cannot promise that in the future I shall not—”
“Oh, there you are!” A plump woman with a handsome face neared the pair. She had a light dusting of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Her gown was of the finest fabrics, but the skin of her face and neck was nearly as red as the fabric of her gown, proof of how much she had been enjoying the evening. Then again, Aunt Roberta was always determined to squeeze every last drop of life out of every party she attended, including her need to absorb each and every speck of gossip to be wrung from the guests present. “You shall never believe who I have been having the most delightful conversation with!”
Mortimer and Christian exchanged a knowing look. Neither even attempted to answer, for they both knew that she was going to fill them in on every detail whether they actually wished to know or not.
“It is said that the Duke of Calder and his wife will be visiting their family over the Christmas Holiday, so naturally I took it upon myself to speak with the Duke’s new mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess Farbridge —a lovely woman albeit a bit tight lipped.” Roberta paused to take a deep drink from her goblet and shoved the empty glass toward her husband.
“As you know how much I love to host a good dinner party, I insisted that she inform me of his arrival at once so that her Duke and my future Duke could meet! Certainly, if a man with a reputation like his can secure a wife, then you can pick up a few pointers of your own as to how to keep a woman.”
“Dear Aunt, I assure you that I have no problems—” Christian started, wishing to be done with the conversation, but Roberta would have none of it and quickly spoke over him.
“No, you do not. What you know is how to get a woman and coax her into your bed, then when you are finished with her, you move on to the next. Those behaviors do not comprise a good husband!”
Roberta grabbed onto the bottom of Christian’s sleeve to anchor him into place, lest he get a foolish notion like attempting to physically walk away from her while she was in the middle of speaking to him. “Now, Lady Farbridge also has another two daughters who are out in society — think of the connections that you could make! Think of how powerful a match!”
“I have avoided every other mother in the room until this point just to keep from having to maneuver myself out of this very conversation… and yet, somehow you have forced me to have it anyway. I suppose for that alone, I should congratulate you, but you are already well aware that I have no intention of finding a wife at some ball… nor do I have any intentions of getting married at all.”
Roberta rolled her eyes and lifted his wine goblet from his hand, taking it for herself as she heaved a long-suffering sigh. “This is why my beautiful hair is going gray.” She lifted a hand to fluff the expertly styled gray updo that was adorned with a single feather as she spoke and winked at the nearest woman to her as if to say ‘Yes, my hair might be gray but it still looks better than yours.’ Yet, despite her flair and tendency for theatrics, Christian knew in his heart that Roberta did not possess a malicious bone. She simply did not know how to keep her thoughts or opinions to herself… about anything… or anyone… ever.
“Your hair is lovely as you are aware.” Christian’s brow lifted in amusement, the corner of his lip tilting upward as he fought the fondness that blossomed in his chest for her.
“Yes… that is true. At least your eyes are in fact functioning — I had worried when you had not so much as danced with a single lady all evening or even all Season!”
“I have only arrived recently!” Christian protested.
“Well, then you have a lot of missed time to account for, do you not? Here let me show you to — oh!” Roberta lifted her arm, so that Christian would be forced to take her arm and escort her where she wished to go because his firm upbringing would not allow him to respond any other way. “There, young Vanessa Farbridge has entered the dance floor. She is rather fetching, do you not think?”
Christian did not so much as bother looking in the girl’s direction.
“She has not entertained a suitor all evening! She would be perfect for you, would she not?”
Christian shrugged, uninterested in her, but instead there was another that did indeed catch his eye — a slender thing that stood taller than most of the other women in the room. Her long blonde hair was styled half-up with waves framing her face prettily as she pretended to interest herself in the small cubes of cheese on the table at the far end of the room… but there was something rather determined about the way she was staring straight at the gentleman on the other end of the table, a gentleman who seemed rather oblivious to her existence, but she was not deterred.
There was something almost… hungry about her intense gaze, and he very much wanted to know what she wanted so badly from the man.
To his side, his aunt pinched his arm to get his attention. “You are not paying me any attention at all, are you, My Lord?!”
Roberta only broke out the formal titles when she was cross. It was something she nearly always refused to do, regardless of the setting. She claimed it was an effort to feel more familiar with those around her, but nearly everybody simply dismissed her as a rude gossip and ignored it. Christian hissed in discomfort and focused on his aunt. “I have already told you that I am uninterested.”
“Well, then who has caught your eye?” Roberta spun to look at the girl at the table. “Hm,” she hummed, amused. “That would be the second eldest… Lady Seraphina Farbridge… and here I was about to resign you as hopeless.”
“Is she really?”
“Why yes, and from what I understand, she has a single dance left… Go and take the spot.” Roberta nearly shoved her nephew forward and away from herself. “I insist. I shall never stop speaking about it if you do not.”
Christian chose not to answer her, but he knew very well that he could not allow her to spend the next few nights until the next Holiday event, lamenting about how her nephew caused her nothing but heartache… and he was curious. What was the worst that could come of it? Perhaps this was exactly the opportunity that he needed in order to kill two birds… with one stone.
“Insufferable,” Seraphina muttered to herself as she plastered an easy smile on her features. She held her hands carefully in front of her to keep her dance card, and the precious space remaining, close to her, lest a gentleman get the wrong idea of her walking alone.
“Who is insufferable, my dear?”
Seraphina startled and turned to see who was speaking to her — only to be brought face to face with her mother, Petunia. Standing beside Petunia was one of Seraphina’s friends, Peggy. Peggy was a humbly shaped woman, neither thin nor full-figured but somewhere in the middle. She was soft in places that society said she ought not to be, and her fingers were nearly always tinged gray from her artwork. Peggy had chosen a long time ago to dedicate herself to the arts as opposed to the pursuit of finding a husband. Much to Peggy’s mother’s dismay, the woman would not entertain a single suitor.
In many ways, Seraphina admired her dear friend for this dedication, or perhaps it was simply that she admired that Peggy had a passion so strong in her life that she was willing to dedicate her entire being to it. Seraphina was accomplished, very accomplished by any standards. She knew that she was pretty and attracted many eligible men. She could read and write with delicate, beautiful scrawl. She knew how to embroider and play the pianoforte. She could sketch decently, and she could recite poems from memory. She endured the riding lessons that were always Vanessa’s passion, and she enjoyed her hobbies well enough, but not a single thing really set fire to her heart in the way that she had seen it done in others.
Vanessa adored her horses and was happy to tend to them at any moment. Bridgette, her eldest sister, read with such voracity that her imagination was unmatched, and her painting skills could capture the most wonderful landscapes. Peggy could create creatures and beings from inside of books that looked so real that they could almost jump out of the paper to touch you.
Seraphina had yet to find her passion. She enjoyed people, she adored dancing, and she liked to combine them in balls. She spoke four languages with perfect fluency including Italian and French. She loved to go and do. She liked being in public more than any of the rest of her family, yet nothing had intrigued her so intensely as the notion of how Bridgette described the marriage bed.
Perhaps that made her a vagrant… but she was determined.
“Them,” Seraphina answered, gesturing to the men on the dance floor and smiled when Peggy laughed.
“Do not encourage her, Dear,” Petunia spoke out of the side of her mouth to Peggy, who pressed the back of her gloved hand into her mouth to keep any further sound from leaving her lips. “You have seemed to enjoy their company thus far, and now that your sister is dancing, you are welcome to continue to dance for the rest of the evening, so long as you do not allow yourself to become carried away.”
Seraphina folded her arms across her chest. “I have no idea what you could mean, Mama; I am the picture of reservation.”
“You are a lady with a wicked tongue and a foul disposition; that is what you are,” Petunia answered.
“Peggy likes my disposition, do you not?” Seraphina turned to her friend for assistance, and Peggy only shook her head.
“Do not involve me in your quarrels. My oldest friend or not, I fear the wrath of your mother far more than I fear your ire, Seraphina. I would do as she says.”
“My mother would have me pick one of these gentlemen and condemn myself to be his wife, so that she could have my wicked tongue as far away from her as possible.” Seraphina rolled her eyes and turned to her mother. “Tell me, Mama, which of these men do you think would enjoy the use of my wicked tongue the most? There is that one, who smells of onions, or perhaps the one who dances on my feet… or perhaps that one?” Seraphina pointed out a rather severe-looking gentleman with dark features across the room. “I am quite certain that he shall propose to me in the morning as you forced me to dance with him twice already. I cannot do so a third time, and he is incapable of speaking to me about anything other than his grandmother’s opinions on turnips and all of the health benefits that they suppose them to have!”
“Say… he does look a touch purple in the face, does he not?” Peggy added, squinting at the gentleman.
Petunia stomped her foot very subtly under the layers of her gown, so that the two girls presently in her charge would stop their chatter. “Well, you shall have to pick one of them. You have spoken to nearly all of the eligible men in the ton, and none of them seems to be good enough for you. Tell me, dear daughter, do you think that your uncle is really willing to endure your antics for another Season? And another after that? We do not have the luxury of time for you to find a love match.” Petunia stopped abruptly, realizing how her daughter was bound to take the words.
“Dearest, I understand that a love match would be the ideal situation, but it seems that you are determined not to like a single suitor, so how am I supposed to assist you without taking the choice of the matter out of your hands?”
Seraphina knew where this was going. “Uncle Tobias will not choose anybody better for me; he will take the highest bidder like I am some prized cow for him to audition off, just like he had intended to do to Bridgette before she met her Duke.”
“Then I suggest that you find a Duke of your own, and quickly, because I cannot for the life of me tell what qualifications a gentleman must meet in order for you to find him tolerable,” Petunia breathed, her brow knitting in concern for her daughter.
“I want…” Seraphina paused, unsure how to word her desires to make herself understood properly, “I want something… more. I want something that will be… extraordinary. Something that, even if I am to be a wife until the end of my days, I shall know that I had at least… something. Even if whatever husband I should end up with decides to take dozens of mistresses… I would like our beginnings to be something… something—”
“Adventure,” Peggy supplied. A look of sadness flickering in her pretty, wide, brown eyes. “It sounds to me like your heart is set on adventure… which is a very unfortunate thing indeed given that you are so unlikely to find it. Most never do.”
Now that it was spoken out loud, Seraphina realized that it was true. That was what she wanted. She wanted somebody to sweep her off of her feet, both literally and metaphorically. She wanted passion and heat. She wanted nothing more than to be so overcome by desire that nothing else mattered but her passion… and she would never be happy until she found it.
Nothing would matter that came after it, so long as she got at least a moment.
At least, that is what she told herself. She sustained herself with the idea that settling down and finding herself a perfectly suitable husband would be made tolerable, so long as she had one memory that was rich and vibrant enough that to forever make all those that followed better somehow.
She had already selected the perfect gentleman to experiment with, that much she was certain of. She just needed to bring him on board.
“Very well. I can understand your desires, but you must understand that if this… adventure does not find you in time then you will be left with very limited prospects. I do not imagine that you wish to place this need for vibrancy above the desire to not have your uncle be the one to select your future for you. We have all learned from that mistake, have we not?”
Seraphina nodded. “We have, Mama, I will do better.”
Petunia lifted her hand to rest a knuckle beneath her daughter’s chin for a moment. “I do hate to rush you, but I want the best for you.”
Seraphina reached up and grabbed her mother’s hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Yes, Mama, I know.”
Peggy stepped forward and linked her arm through Seraphina’s. “Most of all, we cannot have you ending up a spinster like myself. That would truly be the worst outcome of all.”
While she spoke about herself in a negative fashion, she knew that it was only meant to keep things in perspective. The pair walked away from Petunia, who watched them go.
“Now, tell me quickly, for I know that you are not a woman to be idle-minded,” Peggy started as they walked. “You have your eye on somebody, do you not? Do not lie to me.”
“If I tell you, you must promise not to use my infatuations as muse for your latest artworks. Swear it to me,” Seraphina added.
Peggy laughed. “I swear it; of course, I swear.”
Satisfied, Seraphina nodded. “Very well. There is a gentleman here… perhaps the only one who seems to have little to no interest in me whatsoever. He is very tall with beautiful, tanned skin and goes by the name Lord Giovanni Rossi.”
“Oh, I have heard of him!”
“Then you have heard of his reputation as well as I have. He only speaks to those young Ladies that he deems of the highest order, and I have heard tales of his rakish ways traveled over the continents! He is only here until the end of the Holidays visiting relatives, and after Christmas, he shall be back in Europe.”
“Then you have also heard that he has not danced with a single lady at any of the events that he has attended thus far.” Peggy shook her head as if implying that it was silly that Seraphina set her sights on somebody who has no intention of selecting a wife or even entertaining the idea.
“You assume that I wish for him to take me dancing, my dear friend.”
Peggy looked as if somebody had poured water on top of her head. “You cannot possibly mean what I think you do.” Peggy lowered her voice, so that they would not be overheard before they were supposed to be. “You cannot be serious.”
“I am completely serious, Peggy. Do you really mean to tell me that you have never been curious? The rumors that surround rakes are peppered through rhe ton like biscuits at high tea, and you have never wanted to know the truth of the matter for yourself? Not even once?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Then I shall not tell you about it once I have accomplished my goal!” Seraphina whispered and abruptly stopped walking. “There he is!” She allowed herself a moment to give the man a good once over. “He is very handsome, do you not agree?”
“Certainly, he is handsome! Seraphina, think of your family!” Peggy took both of Seraphina’s hands in her own and spun her away from the handsome foreigner.
“Not you too,” Seraphina sighed.
“This is not only about you. If you wish to have your fun, by all means I am not the woman to stop you or to lecture you on the proper way to go about your life or getting things done, but do not put your sisters in jeopardy. Your family has only just narrowly avoided one scandal as it is. You cannot rush into another that you might not be able to get yourself out of!”
“Then I shall be discreet.”
“You are incapable of being discreet! You and I both know it! I can see that you have already set your eyes on this man, but this is not a good idea. Finish out the evening — sleep on it. Seraphina, please, I beg of you!”
“Why is spinsterhood good enough for you but not for me?”
“This is not a life that you wish to live! I am blessed with a gracious family and an elder brother who can carry on my family name. You do not have such a luxury! Seraphina, that would mean you living on the Earl of Evan’s estate and hoping that he will allow it… or you will be tossed onto the street and forced to find your own way, and while inside the ton life is honey coated and fine. It is not that way everywhere; I promise you that.”
Seraphina hardly heard a word of her friend’s sage advice. “A little trust would be most welcome, Peggy. I will not endanger myself or my family. Please, I just wish to have a conversation with the man; that is all. No harm done.” Seraphina pulled her hands from Peggy’s and regarded her with a strange look. She had hoped that her friend would support her curiosity and not condemn it. She simply could not understand why she might be so upset by the bold notion.
Seraphina smoothed the front of her gown down her torso and moved around the side of the room toward Giovanni Rossi, hoping that by the time that she arrived to his half of the room, he would have taken a notice of her and would not force her to do all of the work herself.
In truth, apart from selecting the man for her tryst, she had not fully worked out just how she was to go about having a conversation with him… or how these topics were supposed to go. She assumed that he would make a proposition that she would then have to decide if she wished to accept. Outside of the boundaries of polite, easy social conversation, she had little to no knowledge of the scandalous topics that Bridgette had mentioned as a possibility.
Feeling brave, Seraphina positioned herself at the table laden with various finger sandwiches and fruits, hoping that her mere presence would be enough to tempt the tall man. She hummed softly as she perused, but the man did not so much as budge. He did not look her way; he did not seem to notice anything outside of the heated conversation that he was having with the man in front of him.
The men spoke in forced whispers in rapid Italian that was just a touch too accented and quickly spoken for her to keep up with properly, not that she did not try until such a point that she felt that she was spying or acting like a gossip.
It started to feel futile, and, short of inventing a reason to introduce herself, she would have to spill something on him to get his attention. She did not imagine that pretending to faint would do any good — not really. If he even caught her, it would be at risk of injury to herself, and she did not care much for pain.
What was she supposed to do now? She was starting to feel very foolish, indeed. Was she simply too pure? Did she come across as too much of a lady? Still, she could not help but to imagine what it might be like if he were to turn and see her, a crooked smile on his handsome face. She wanted to feel his strong arms around her, pulling her closer as he whispered words of seduction to coax her away from the dance floor and into his private carriage. What they would do next, she had no idea, but she was desperate to find out.
Determined, she moved forward to him, only to be stopped by a rich, warm voice directly in her ear.
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