The Marquess and the Maiden(5)

By: Robyn Dehart

His mother smiled brightly. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

He held up a hand. “Do not. That is not what I was asking.” Though he had to admit he was curious as to what the pretty Lady Harriet looked like now and if she was still so inexplicably cheerful.

Harriet looked around the ballroom. Everything was beautiful; the lights glowed just so, roses and topiaries decorated every square inch. She hated all of it. She was so tired of the routine— dress up, pretend to be kind and accommodating. For what?

Another evening so dull she might as well be a doddering eighty-year-old woman. A quick altercation in a darkened alleyway where she caught a thief—that was more her idea of fun.

Would that she could skip all this and focus totally on the Ladies of Virtue. For four years, she’d been a member of the secret group of women who hid behind the guise of being a charitable organization when they were actually specially trained and focused on ridding the streets of petty crimes.

Agnes, her closest friend, stepped over to where Harriet stood at the edge of the ballroom. Her dear friend was beautiful, stunningly so, yet at the moment annoyance marred her lovely face.

“Whatever is the matter, my dear?” Harriet asked.

“’Tis my brother. I do not understand why he must always be in every part of my life.”

“Would that Malcolm were as adoring and protective as Christopher. Instead, my brother is far more interested in wooing every pretty girl who crosses his path.”

“You wouldn’t actually want that,” Agnes said.

Harriet chuckled. “You’re probably right about that.” She scanned the room. “Have you seen Iris this evening?”

“I believe she intended to stay home in hopes of catching her own wayward brother for a conversation.”

“At least our brothers are older and we don’t have to worry about them overly much,” Harriet said.

They each grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing tray and clinked them together before taking a hearty sip. Harriet closed her eyes, relishing the way the crisp bubbles danced across her tongue and down her throat.

“Who is that?” Agnes asked, her eyes locked on the short staircase that led into the room.

Harriet followed her friend’s gaze and saw a tall man with long blond hair. A scruffy beard covered far too much of his face. He descended the stairs with the assistance of a cane. Aside from his unfashionably long hair and beard, he was impeccably dressed. It was the cane, though, that gave her pause.

Good heavens.

No, it couldn’t be him. He never attended parties or balls. In fact, if she was correct, he hadn’t been to a Societal party in nearly six years, though she knew he’d remained in London. His name had become synonymous with luxury and opulence. His flagrant disposal of his monies was truly an embarrassment of wealth.

Harriet tore her gaze away to look at Agnes. “If I am not mistaken, that is the Marquess of Davenport,” Harriet whispered. He was distracting to look upon, but at least she knew she wouldn’t have to talk to him. Obviously, since he disliked her as much as she disliked him, and that would make everything easier because he would avoid her. And she wouldn’t have to relive the humiliation of their last encounter.

“We’ll know for certain soon, as he’s coming this way,” Agnes said.

“What?” She glanced up. Oh no! It did look like he was walking over to her. Why would he do that? He must be heading toward someone else, perhaps standing behind her. No, wait, he was definitely walking toward her.

He looked every bit a man with a purpose as he strode toward her. Harriet looked for a way to escape, to avoid any would-be confrontation with him, but there was no time.

Harriet held her breath. His steely blue eyes pierced directly into her soul. She inwardly cursed him for still being so blasted handsome; it was truly wasted on such a coldhearted man. “Lord Davenport.” She curtsied.

“Lady Harriet,” he said. His deep voice vibrated through her entire being.

Had his voice always been so entrancing? She didn’t recall it having such an effect on her before, as if he’d caressed her with his hand instead of speaking a simple salutation.

While he didn’t bow, he did incline his head. He hadn’t completely lost his manners in his absence. She hated the way he made her feel. The last time she’d seen him, she’d nearly begged him to marry her, yet he was going to proceed as if they were friendly. As if she hadn’t offered herself up to him with a bow made from banknotes. She could do this. If he wanted to pretend they were allies, she could as well. She’d been pretending to like people and be friendly with people whom she didn’t particularly care for her entire life. This was not a game in which he could beat her.

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