Copyright © Suz deMello, 2017
Nate glanced at a mirror just inside the entrance to Almack’s Assembly Rooms and thought he looked like a ponce. The jacket was all right, he supposed, but the shoes were plumb awful, torture devices so brutal he longed for his comfortable, broken-in boots. His cravat felt like a noose, and the shirt’s collar was so high he could scarcely turn his head.
But turn his head he did, for the room was jam-packed with beautiful women. Oh, there were men also, he reckoned, but he didn’t have eyes for them. Because the women—oh, the women were superb. He’d never seen girls so elegant, so perfect. Their complexions were nothing like the women he knew, all rough, red or brown from the punishing Texas sun. He guessed that these girls had what was called an English “peaches and cream” complexion. He bet they’d never known a day’s work in their lives.
But they were beautiful. And as for their bodies…well. He didn’t care for the bustles many wore—they concealed their hips unpleasingly—but necklines were low and the mounded flesh they revealed ranged from boyish to bountiful. Flowery perfumes teased his nostrils, unlike the stinks of dust, piss and unwashed crotches he’d encountered in whorehouses.
Soft music played and elegant aristocrats danced.
Stunned, he realized that these were his people. He blinked. This was the life he’d have led had his father not fallen in love with his mother. His heart shied away from the thought.
Across the room he saw two of the prettiest girls he’d ever seen. Even in the midst of the ball, which was crowded with beautiful women, these two stood out. One was a strapping gal, tall and brunette, dressed in an elaborate green gown. Low-cut, it exposed most of a gorgeous set he hankered to fondle. Her companion was a complete contrast, small and fair, in a pretty pink dress. She seemed like the kind of girl a man naturally wanted to protect, to cuddle by his side and love tenderly.
He eyed them with longing, but his desire to meet them was dimmed by the sad thought that he’d have to choose between them.
He headed toward them, plowing through throngs of dancers as they twirled through a waltz.
Leonore Wingate eyed the tumult left in the wake of the well-dressed stranger. At age twenty-one, having been out for five years, she thought she knew every eligible gentleman in London. Apparently not.
She turned to her bosom-bow, Amelia Haddon, bending slightly so the smaller woman could hear over the music and chatter. “Can you see that chap? He’s new.”
Amelia blinked. “Really?”
“Yes, and he’s coming toward us.” Leonore pursed her lips.
Amelia daintily unfurled her fan. “Perhaps he means to accost The Diamond.” The Diamond, Lady Camilla Doulton, was the reigning Beauty of this year’s Season. She and a throng of admiring males crowded around a drinks table a few feet to the left.
“If not, we should be prepared.” Leonore grinned. “What shall we tell this one?” They had been inventing stories to explain their unusual closeness since they’d met at boarding school. Their most innocuous story was that she was Amelia’s hired companion, which was fairly close to the truth. They enjoyed telling others that they were engaged in the study of Sapphic poetry; in the main, their peers had no idea to what they were referring.
Amelia eyed the stranger. “My intuition tells me that this one might not be fobbed off with ease. You do remember that Madame Esperanza told me that my intuitive powers are usually great.”
Leonore withheld a sarcastic retort, but rolled her eyes.
Amelia continued, “Perhaps we should encourage his suit.”
Shocked, Leonore lost her breath and therefore her voice for several seconds. Then she managed to say, “But—but—”
“You have not yet heard my news.”
“That letter you received from your father?”
“Yes. He threatens to cut me off should I fail to marry before my next birthday.”
“But you can’t marry! You can’t!” Heads turned at the vehemence of her tone, and she lowered her voice. “Why?”
“Of course I do not wish to marry, but what else can we do?”
Leonore pressed her lips together. “I’ll not leave you.”
Amelia touched Leonore’s hand briefly, so quickly that she was sure no one else saw. “Of course not. We shall maintain the fiction that you are my paid companion.”
“But what about at night? You can’t, Amelia! It would kill you!”
Amelia drew a determined breath. “We all must do what we must. And I will have to bear his attentions, at least some nights.”
“You’ll lie quietly and think of crown and country? Ha! I’ll not allow it!”
“We don’t have a choice. Many men keep mistresses for such…activities.”
Leonore paused, thinking. “Hm. You are right. Without your funds, we are left with only my tiny portion.” Her birth was impeccable but her fortune small, her parents having inconveniently wasted the Wingate estate before dying in a carriage accident.
She looked at Amelia. Amelia looked back. They sighed in unison.
“Good evening, ladies.” The stranger sketched a clumsy bow.
Leonore raised her brows as Amelia raised her fan. The stranger was so untutored in the social graces that he did not realize that he ought not address ladies to whom he had not yet been introduced. But…
“Your accent is not English,” Leonore said.
“No, I’m from Texas.” He smiled.
“In America?” Amelia sounded excited, and Leonore felt a spark of hope. Perhaps this foreigner would be different from other men. Perhaps he would not demand what Amelia couldn’t comfortably give.
“Yeah. From the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Leonore winced at his appalling speech. He seemed like a nice fellow, but…
Amelia said, “And what brings you to our shores?”
“I’ve inherited an estate that is in poor shape, and I’m here to claim it and find a wife to help me get it to where it should be,” the man explained in a rush.
Given the accent, Leonore understood perhaps half of what he said. She exchanged glances with Amelia, then said, “Umm, with all respect, sir, we have yet to be properly introduced.”
“Oh, sorry, miss. I’m Nate Fortune.”
“Of the Darlingside Fortunes?” Amelia asked, closing her fan.
If Leonore raised her brows more, she was certain they’d disappear into her hairline. She controlled herself. “You must be the new Earl of Darlingside.”
“Yeah. And you?”
She and Amelia again exchanged glances. Despite the social solecism, Amelia responded. “I’m Amelia Haddon, and this is my…companion, Leonore Wingate.” She hooked her arm through Leonore’s elbow.
He eyed their linked arms and raised his brows. “Your…companion?”
“Yes,” Leonore said with emphasis. “We are quite inseparable.”
Now the stranger—Darlingside?—raised his brows. “That’s good.”
Leonore stared at him.
“Well, it would be very hard to choose between you. You are both such lovely ladies.”
“Flatterer,” Amelia said flirtatiously. She rapped his knuckles with her fan.
“Ow!” Darlingside made a show of rubbing his hand, as though he’d actually been hurt.
Amelia giggled while Leonore smiled.
He smiled back. “So the only question is, which one of you will I marry?”