The Marquess and the Maiden(2)

By: Robyn Dehart

She rarely asked for anything; escorting her to the Whitmore soiree didn’t seem to be too much to do, despite the fact that this was the first time he’d been out in proper Society in more than six months. Not since his accident. Not since his nearly betrothed had abandoned him to marry a man who could walk normally. His mother stood on his left side, while he hobbled on his right with the assistance of his cane.

Now that they were here, he realized there had been more to her request, something she’d left unsaid, because she’d known he never would have agreed.

His mother’s ulterior motive became clear the moment they entered the ballroom. She led them directly to her closest friend, the widowed Duchess of Lockwood and her youngest daughter.

“Oliver, dear, you remember Harriet,” his mother said.

He glanced from one set of female eyes to another. This was no mere accompaniment to a ball; this was an ambush. He settled his gaze on Harriet. It had been a while since he’d seen her, or perhaps he hadn’t been this close to her, because he was certain he would have remembered a bosom like hers. Her pale pink gown left her creamy shoulders uncovered and the bodice molded to her torso, bringing attention to the indention at her waist. But her breasts were spectacular, and the fabric that sat between them dared anyone to look away. The lovely mounds rose and fell with each of her breaths, and he realized that they would more than fill his hands.

He shifted uncomfortably. It would do him no good to ogle her while their mothers stood and watched. He bowed over her hand as best he was able with his damned leg. “Lady Harriet.” He was going to throttle his mother when they returned home. He shifted his eyes to her, not even trying to hide his anger.

“Lord Davenport,” Harriet said.

He could not miss the way her mother cleared her throat and gave her daughter a slight nudge.

Harriet blushed but still stepped forward. “Would you care to escort me to the portrait hall? I’m told it is something one truly must experience.”

He shot another quick glare in his mother’s direction. Declining Harriet’s shy request would only punish her, and this brazen setup that their mothers had orchestrated was not any more Harriet’s fault than it was his. He reluctantly held out his arm for Harriet and let her lead them away.

“It’s been unusually cold as of late, wouldn’t you say?” she asked.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

She chuckled lightly. “I’m not complaining; I do enjoy a brisk breeze.”

He grunted noncommittally.

“I’ve been eagerly reading about the upcoming votes on the railroad expansions. It’s all very exciting,” she said.

He didn’t think she actually required him to participate in this conversation. She babbled about some vase that had been broken a few months before at the British Museum.

Harriet had a mouth on her, he’d give her that. His family had known the Lockwood family forever, it seemed. They were one of the few families in London who hadn’t abandoned them when his father had lost nearly every penny they had. Even now when he and his mother had little save their names and ancestral estate, the Lockwoods remained friendly. Yet even having a predetermined fondness for them because of this, Harriet was so bloody cheerful, and talkative, she was driving him to madness. At the moment, she was blathering on about the heavy gilded frame holding the portrait of a soldier upon a large black steed.

It was quite evident that their mothers had designed this entire evening solely for the purpose of putting him and Harriet together. Harriet’s fortune could, no doubt, save him and his mother.

The tour of the portrait hall didn’t take very long, thankfully, and he led her back toward the ballroom. He had to rid himself of her before he did something drastic to shut her up.

His gait paused as he saw the tall woman across the ballroom. Catherine. Her pale, nearly silver hair was piled artfully atop her head, leaving her long, graceful neck exposed. She was as stunning as she’d been the last time he’d seen her—when she’d walked away from him. On her arm stood her equally attractive husband. They cut a striking couple. Anyone could see that.

“I still have several dances that haven’t been claimed,” Harriet said.

He dropped his gaze to her and frowned, then tapped his cane on the floor.

Her eyes widened, then she winced. “What a goose I am. Of course, you can’t dance. It matters not, I’m not very skilled at it myself.”

Had she always been this talkative? He didn’t think so. She was obviously nervous. He made her nervous. He likely scared the hell out of her as he seemed to do most people. She was willing to overlook her aversion to him because she was desperate, or because her mother was forcing her.

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