The Marquess and the Maiden(9)

By: Robyn Dehart

Harriet was short. She knew that. Everyone knew that. And it made her curves appear more generous than they were. She suspected she and Agnes likely weighed the same, but the height difference was cruel. She resisted the urge to wrap her arms around her body, covering herself. She would not give Belinda that pleasure.

“Her mother has plenty of funds,” Iris snapped. Her lovely green eyes narrowed harshly at the tall, pretty blonde.

“Perhaps.” The girl closed her eyes and tilted her head. “But you know, Harriet, if you happen to land yourself a husband, he might not be so generous. You could help your future husband out and skip luncheon a few times a week; that ought to help.” She offered Harriet a sticky-sweet smile.

Harriet felt her own smile disappear.

“Any man in this room would be honored to marry Harriet,” Iris said before Harriet could respond. “She is intelligent and kind, and beautiful and generous, which is more than anyone could say about you, Belinda.”

The girl flinched, then released a forced chuckle. “I don’t believe I see any of these would-be suitors clamoring over here for her attention.”

And there wouldn’t be. Harriet knew that. Ball after ball, soiree after soiree, it was always the same. She danced often enough. People genuinely liked her. She was everyone’s little sister. At least that is what her own brother had told her once. But she was never anyone’s first choice.

And then Lord Ashby appeared to collect Iris for their waltz, but instead he faced Harriet.

“Lady Harriet, I do believe this is our waltz.”

Harriet stared up into his handsome face, confused.

“Yes, Harriet, that’s right,” Iris said, “Lord Ashby claimed this waltz.”

Harriet nodded absently, but allowed Lord Ashby to lead her out onto the crowded dance floor. A pity dance.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Harriet said quietly.

“Dance with a beautiful woman? I believe that is precisely why I attend these ridiculous functions,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Thank you.” There was no need to say more. She knew why he had done it. Iris might not appreciate it yet, but it appeared she had found a good man in Lord Ashby. Yet this was further proof that no one ever asked her to dance because they wanted to be close to her as a woman.

“My pleasure.” He turned her around the dance floor. “So how is it that you know Miss Bennington?”

She smiled genuinely. “We are in a social organization together, the Ladies of Virtue.”

“Ah yes, the do-gooders who donate funds and time to London charities for children, if I’m not mistaken?”

“Precisely. I was not aware our reputation had reached so far.” She was quiet a moment, then added, “Iris is a dear friend. The very best.”

They danced quietly for a while, Lord Ashby expertly spinning her around the dance floor. She became increasingly aware of someone watching her. She couldn’t very well turn her head to investigate, so she had to merely take her glances as they came with the movements of the waltz. There he was. Lord Davenport. Tall, dashing despite his ungroomed beard and too-long hair, piercing eyes locked on her.

Heat blazed into her hairline, warming her neck and her cheeks and very likely staining every exposed bit of her fair skin. What was he even doing here?

“You have an admirer,” Lord Ashby said.

She looked up into his eyes and shook her head, swallowing. “No, it is only that we know each other from childhood. Our mothers are friends. He has only recently returned to Society. I am familiar, ’tis all.” They had once been encouraged to marry, but he hadn’t wanted her. He was no admirer of hers, that she knew for certain.

Lord Ashby nodded, but she sensed that he didn’t believe anything she had said.

“I don’t suppose I could persuade you to give me Miss Bennington’s address?”

She smiled. “Of course.” It was quite evident he was quickly becoming Iris’s admirer.

Oliver stood against the wall in the ballroom and released a slow breath. As much as he hated to admit it, Lady Harriet might be right and his fat purse wasn’t enough to garner the attention of any would-be brides. So far, his reentrance into Society alone hadn’t been enough to create interest, though he’d be the first to admit he hadn’t been working terribly hard at bride hunting.

He’d met more women and been reintroduced to even more in the last few days than he’d met when he’d been eighteen and eager for a wife. No one had caught his attention. No one had plagued his thoughts.

No one save Harriet.

Not only that, but it seemed that he made most of the women so damned nervous, they could scarcely look him in the face. Harriet had always met his gaze boldly. He watched her now, standing amidst her friends not too far from him. Her pink gown brought out the natural creaminess of her skin, and every time she smiled it felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach.

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