"Somewhat of a Ruse" Sample

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Chapter One

 

 

The magnificence of the ballroom stilled my feet. My gaze darted from the overflowing flower arrangements that filled every nook in the large hall to the countless faces that glowed in the candlelight. It was as spectacular a sight as Mama had declared. Perhaps even more so.

“Laura.” My cousin, Madalene, gave a light tug on my arm, her whisper scarcely audible over the din of voices and the orchestra. “You must not look so doe-eyed at every new encounter. You’ll draw attention to yourself.”

I glanced down at the ball gown I wore, the excessive pinning easily discernible if one cared to notice. “That would be disastrous.” 

A slight upward curve formed at the corners of her mouth, and she bowed her head close to mine. “You’d best not let my mother hear you speak in such a manner. You know how your sarcasm grates upon her nerves.”

“Everything I do grates upon her poor nerves,” I whispered, not risking a backward glance at my aunt, who trailed a few feet behind us. 

Madalene sent me a mischievous smile. “Your point is valid.” 

My gaze swept the large room a second time, and I was not the least bit surprised to discover the collective focus had shifted to Madalene. Some attendees sent discreet glances her way, but others did not conceal their stares. She was a rare beauty with her milky complexion, light eyes, and raven black hair, while I, though related to her, was boorishly plain, with eyes that perfectly matched the unremarkable shade of my chestnut brown mane. I supposed I was taller than average, but that was hardly an advantage when I did not boast a fuller, more feminine figure like Madalene. I glanced at my cousin. “Does it ever exhaust you?”

“Does what exhaust me?”

“Being the center of attention wherever you go. I think I would despise it.” 

Her gaze flitted over the crush of faces. “I hardly notice it anymore,” she said dismissively. 

“Madalene!” 

Madalene searched the area in front of us, then smiled. “Oh, look. There’s Peggy.” 

I followed Madalene’s line of sight to a young lady who was the opposite of Madalene in color, but almost as beautiful. Blond curls piled around her face, accentuating her dark eyes and lightly freckled skin. She beckoned Madalene to her, and like a child to a new toy, Madalene dropped my arm and glided toward her friend, collecting more stares and leaving a wake of bergamot and lemons behind her. Or was that overpowering scent also emanating from me? I lowered my nose to my gown as indiscreetly as possible and took a quick sniff. The citrus scent nearly choked me, and I gave a small cough to clear the potent concoction from my lungs. Madalene had generously insisted I wear some sort of perfume, and as I had none of my own, she had shared her favorite with me. But now that I no longer had my pelisse to mask the scent, I was confident it had been applied far too liberally. 

Most of the gazes that had followed Madalene through the crowd returned to their companions, and I felt it safe to follow.

Digging my toes into the soles of my slippers, so as not to lose one in the pursuit, I made my way to where Madalene and Peggy huddled close together, their backs to me. 

“He is here somewhere.” Peggy lifted onto her toes, her gaze flitting across the sea of people. 

“Is he truly as handsome as you say?” Doubt tainted Madalene’s voice. “For I recall you also thought Mr. Rottler a fine specimen.” 

“Why must you hold that over me?” Peggy dropped back on her heels. “I did not think him handsome—well, not exceptionally so. Besides, Mr. Huntington is far superior. You shall see.” Her gaze went to the crowd again. “As soon as I can locate the elusive man. He seems to have vanished.”

“Perhaps he’s hiding from you.” Madalene quirked a teasing brow. 

At my cousin’s bold declaration, I lifted a hand to cover my surprise.

The movement must have caught Peggy’s attention, for her gaze flew to me. “Do I know you? Or do you simply find it entertaining to listen in on other people’s conversations?”

Madalene peered over her shoulder but smiled when she saw it was me her friend was interrogating. She placed a hand on Peggy’s arm. “That is my cousin, Laura.” 

Peggy’s lips parted. “The governess?”

Madalene glanced around, then leaned in close. “Yes. Though now she is also to be a companion of sorts.”

I glanced at Peggy with a hope she might ask what had brought on the arrangement, but her empathetic expression told me she already knew more than I did. It seemed I would not yet discover the reason my companionship was suddenly required when Madalene had been out in Society for months without it. 

Madalene sent me a smile. “Besides, I far prefer Laura to some stuffy, matronly figure Father might have stuck me with. And she is far more interesting company than my maid.”

A compliment was surely in there . . . somewhere. 

“Is that your old ball gown she is wearing?” Peggy’s gaze dropped to my feet. “And your slippers?” 

“Mother thought it wise to repurpose a few of my older gowns, considering Laura will have no need for such finery when she returns to her typical duties.”

Peggy appraised me again. “Well, you might have at least selected a more advantageous color for her. That pale yellow makes her look positively ill. Poor dear.” 

Annoyance prickled my skin, and without thinking better of it, I gave a small cough. “Perhaps it’s not the color,” I said in a scratchy whisper. 

Peggy blinked, and her gaze shot to Madalene. “Is she unwell?” 

“She is only teasing you.” Madalene sent me an impatient glance.

Unwilling to upset Madalene for the sake of a jest, I offered a repentant smile. “To be sure. It is most definitely the pale yellow that makes me look ill.” 

Peggy’s expression did not change.

“Laura has a very odd sense of humor,” Madalene said, drawing Peggy’s attention again. 

“Well, to save you both from further embarrassment, I have a few old gowns she could have. Though your cousin is taller than us both, she and I are more similar in size otherwise. And I always enjoy doing a good turn for the less fortunate.” 

Oh, perfect. Not only would Peggy not speak to me directly, but I was now a charity case. It was one thing to be a poor relation, working as a governess for an aunt who scarcely tolerated you in order to send money home to your impoverished family . . . I paused. Actually, I fit the definition of charity case quite perfectly. 

Madalene reached for her friend’s hand. “Oh, Peggy. You are too kind.” 

Peggy gave a self-satisfied smile, clearly appreciative of the praise. “I may even have a pair or two of slippers I could part with.” 

Both gazes shifted to me expectantly. 

“Oh.” I forced a smile. “How generous of you.”

Her chest puffed with pride, and she looked at Madalene. “I shall have them sent over to Linwick Manor tomorrow.” 

A gentleman stopped before Madalene, drawing her attention. “Good evening, Miss Pembrooke. Miss Claybourne.” 

I took a slow step backward, hoping to go unnoticed. 

“Good evening, Mr. Linley.” Madalene’s voice took on a more sultry tone. 

“And who is this?” Mr. Linley’s gaze landed on me, then regrettably dropped to my gown and my slippers.

I bent my knees slightly, allowing the ball gown to cover my feet, which forced his gaze upward again.

Madalene sent me a hesitant glance. “Allow me to introduce my cousin, Miss Turner, who has come to stay with us for a time. Laura, this is Mr. Linley.” 

I dropped into a small curtsy. “It’s a pleasure.” 

When I lifted my eyes, his focus was on Madalene again. “Are you partnered for this next set, or might I have that privilege?”

 

Her fingers flailed slightly at his request, then balled into fists at her sides, but she smiled. “Seeing as we have just arrived, I have not secured any partners as of yet.” 

He lifted his arm to her. “Fortune favors the eager, it seems.” 

“It seems so.” She gave a farewell nod to Peggy and took his arm. 

Peggy and I watched Mr. Linley lead Madalene to the row of dancers, then shared an accidental glance before Peggy realized her error and brushed past me. 

A sigh slipped out of me. It was amazing how alone one could feel in a crowd of people. But I supposed loneliness was preferable to seeking the only other person I knew here—Aunt Pembrooke. 

“I see Mr. Linley is the lucky man to have secured Madalene’s first dance.” Aunt Pembrooke stepped to my side, as though my thoughts had beckoned her. Fate was a wicked tease like that. “He is handsome enough, but his estate has too meager an income to be a promising suitor for her. Such a pity.” 

I gave a small nod, knowing she expected me to respond in some form. 

Aunt Pembrooke glanced around, then leaned her head toward me. “Laura, do allow Madalene some freedom this evening. We can’t expect her to make a grand match with you as her constant shadow.” 

I shifted with unease. “Uncle Pembrooke instructed that I—”

“I know of my husband’s instructions, child.” A couple passed by, and she gave an airy laugh as though I had said something amusing, but when her attention returned to me, the smile had faded from her lovely features—ones she had passed on to Madalene. “But as he is not here this evening, I request that you not be a burden upon her. Besides”—her gaze flicked to my dress—“if anyone were to discover you are our governess . . . ” She spoke the word with such disdain, it caused my chest to constrict. 

“I believe that was the wisdom in having me act as companion—no one need question my being here as I am also Madalene’s cousin.”

Aunt Pembrooke’s expression tightened, and I instantly regretted speaking out of turn. “There is no need to give yourself airs simply because you hold my husband’s good opinion. Relation or not, we did not bring you to Linwick Manor for you to meander around ballrooms where you are certain to embarrass us, nor force your company where it is not wanted. Your place is not here. It is with the children. And as soon as I convince my husband of that fact, you will return to the schoolroom, and no one will be the wiser.” 

I stiffened. “Of course, Aunt. Forgive me.” 

She drew in a long inhale, then released it in an agitated puff. “It is forgiven. After all, it is not your fault your mother raised you with less polite manners and a great deal of pride, as though you were our equal.” Her gaze softened. “I hope that your coming to live with us will right you of that error. Each of us must learn our place in this world.” 

I knew my place, and it certainly was not here nor at Linwick Manor but home in Surrey with my family. And yet such thoughts would not do. My uncle and aunt’s generosity had been instrumental in supporting my family. Even Mama had been forced to seek work, but with several mouths to feed, it was rare indeed that extra money was in the coffer. My family needed the salary I was given as governess to the Pembrooke children, and I would do well to remember it. And I did love the children. “I shall watch Madalene from a distance, if that suits you.” 

“That’s a good girl.” Aunt Pembrooke patted my cheek like I was a little girl and not one year older than Madalene, her oldest child. “Oh, and do not forget—no dancing.” 

At hearing the repeated command, my hands balled into fists behind my back, but I managed a smile. “Of course, Aunt.” As though I would dare such a thing wearing slippers two sizes too big, even if she had allowed it. Besides, I’d received only a handful of introductions, and of those my aunt had been certain to inform each gentleman, in some way or other, that I was not dancing this evening. 

“Now go on.” She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “I must speak with Mrs. Claybourne regarding this Mr. Huntington everyone is speaking of. Perhaps I might secure an introduction for Madalene.”

 

*****

The edges of the ballroom now brimmed with people. I was growing dizzy with the constant movement, and my legs ached at having stood watch over Madalene for three sets in a row. How a lady danced for that long without a break was astonishing.

“Pardon me, miss.” A gentleman stepped past me, and I pressed myself against the wall to let him and his companions pass. But before I could resume my place, an elegant matron in a wine-colored silk dress stepped where I had been. The collection of large feathers sticking up from her turban made it impossible for me to see anything beyond it, let alone keep my eyes on Madalene. 

I stepped to the right but bumped into a thin, sharp-featured gentleman I hadn’t noticed standing there. “Forgive me.”

The man gave a huff and returned his gaze to the dancers. 

To my left, a group of chatting ladies blocked my only other retreat. It appeared I was surrounded. With an impatient rhythm, I tapped my fingers against my sides, deciding if I could wait for someone to budge or if I needed to brave a request. 

When I drew in a deep breath to calm my restlessness, the air, thick from the overcrowded room, stuck in my throat and lungs. It would have to be a request, then. I lightly tapped on the shoulder of the woman standing in front of me, when her turning head caused her plume of feathers to assault me. Instinctively, I stepped back, but the wall was too close and the force of my impact sent me forward again, directly into the woman. 

She lurched at the collision, halting my own motion, and I quickly caught hold of her, pulling her back again. 

“I am so sorry,” I said, resetting her leaning turban back into place. “I only meant to ask if I could maneuver past you. But your feathers, they . . . ” I pointed upward, but my words trailed off when I caught sight of her affronted expression.

 With lips pulled in a taut line, momentarily erasing the fine wrinkles around her mouth, she gestured me forward. “By all means. Please, go. And take your overwhelming scent with you.” 

Heat engulfed my whole body at her slight, and the hushed laughter from the surrounding spectators made me feel as though I might be sick. “I truly am sorry,” I whispered, but the woman had already turned her back to me, leaving enough room for me to make my escape. 

Desperate to be on my way, I stepped without a thought for my oversized slippers. My foot slipped out of the heel. Mid-movement, I paused, hoping to wiggle my foot back in, but in my haste to escape, I was moving too quickly forward. With one slipper now missing, the counter motion once again sent me scrambling for my balance, but this time there was no one there to grab onto or absorb my impact. I hit the hard wooden floor with a thud, and the onlookers gasped in unison, then silenced. 

I wasn’t brave enough to glance up, but if the surrounding shoes pointing in my direction were any indication as to who had witnessed my fall, it was a devastating number. Before anyone could come to my rescue, I scrambled to my feet, grabbed the problematic slipper from the floor, and returned it to my foot before hastening toward the nearest exit with clumsy steps and a downcast gaze. How I prayed that Aunt Pembrooke hadn’t witnessed my folly. 

I did not stop when I reached the entryway but continued down the long corridor until there were fewer people and the sounds of the ballroom faded. My breaths came easier now, though I was desperate to find a moment alone to recompose myself. 

A whispering couple sauntered past when a door caught my eye. Glancing around to make certain no one would see me, I opened the door then peered inside. It was dark, and I squinted into the blackness. There was a window against the far wall, yet the majority of light seemed to enter from the candlelit sconce behind me, accentuating a few pieces of furniture—a settee and some chairs. A small parlor, perhaps? I hardly cared. It was empty. With one last glance over my shoulder, I slipped into the room and shut the world out behind me. The darkness was unrelenting—the moonless night adding little light through the window—but I welcomed being unseen. 

“What an utter fool I am.” My words echoed loudly in the stillness, and my mind conjured up an image of me prostrated on the floor with dozens of people standing watch. I groaned with renewed mortification. Aunt Pembrooke had been right. Despite being the granddaughter of a gentleman, I did not belong at a ball. I belonged in the schoolroom. “I don’t care what is requested of me. I shall not venture from Linwick Manor again.” Speaking the words out loud did not make them any truer. I knew I had no choice. I would do what I was told. 

With the acknowledgment of my predicament, tears pricked my vision. I blew out a quick breath, refusing to let them free. I had already been brought low enough—literally—and I would not wallow in what was past. With my propensity for collecting awkward moments, it most certainly wouldn’t be the last. But what was one to do when one felt like sobbing? 

An image came again to my mind, but this time it was of the feathered lady. The grimace on her face was hardly noticeable because of the awkward angle of her tilting turban—the massive collection of feathers pulling it slowly to one side. A smile came to my lips. Who knew that so ostentatious an accessory could nearly bring down two grown women? And a slipper. Wretched thing. If women realized how dangerous their fashion choices could be, they might take more thought in selecting them. Perhaps there should be a warning offered at the time of purchase. A mass of feathers such as this has been known to terrorize innocent bystanders. 

Without warning, laughter burst from me. I quickly pressed my hands against my mouth to mute the noise in case anyone was passing by the closed door, but the attempt produced a snort-like sound that made me laugh harder. Tears now streamed down my face. 

It took a full minute for me to regain any sort of composure. “Oh, heavens,” I breathed, wiping my moistened cheeks. “That was a far preferable way to rid me of my tears.” I often spoke to myself aloud, but there was something reassuring about doing so here, in the dark—a false notion of safety that came from it. Or perhaps it helped me not feel so alone. 

My eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and I caught sight of a large mirror hung over the unlit fire. With a hand held out in front of me, I slid my feet along the ground until I made it safely to the hearth. My reflection was barely discernible, and I gave a small sigh. I supposed it didn’t matter what I looked like. I’d spent most of my time this evening with my back against a wall and people standing in front of me.

An odd scraping sound, like a piece of furniture moving, nearly stopped my heart. I spun around and narrowed my eyes, straining to see into the shadows. “Is someone there?” I called out, suddenly feeling foolish for speaking to an empty room. “Reveal yourself.” 

Footsteps sounded, and a tall figure emerged from the shadows of the far wall. 

Chapter Two

I lurched backward at the man’s sudden appearance, my shoulder ramming against the corner of the mantle. A wave of pain shot through my arm, and I gave a small yelp. 

“Please. Forgive me.” At the regret in the stranger’s warm voice, I stilled. “I should have made myself known.”

“Yes,” I stammered, clenching my throbbing shoulder. My heart pounded so loudly I could scarcely hear my voice. “Why did you not?”

“There was never an ideal time, I’m afraid. I was seeking refuge when you—”

“Refuge?” I asked, suddenly desperate to interrupt his remark about the mortifying scene he had witnessed. “And what would have a gentleman seeking refuge at a ball?” I asked teasingly. “Too many ladies smiling in your direction, or not enough?”

The peculiar silence allowed me to hear the click of a smile. “Would it seem so surprising for a gentleman to have a cause as worthy as your own for hiding away?” His voice was gentle, and I had an odd desire to ask him his reasons. No. I would not allow my curiosity to get the better of me. I had already made a big enough fool of myself this evening. I would not have this man discover who I was and risk word getting back to Aunt Pembrooke. If it hadn’t already. 

“I suppose not.” I began inching my way toward the door along the wall. “And although I wish you all the best with . . . whatever it is keeping you from the ball, I had best get back.” 

My foot hit hard into something. I reached out, but before I had time to take hold of whatever it was, a thunderous clanking echoed through the room. “Blast.” Blindly, I reached a hand down, frantically searching the floor for what I might have broken. My hand landed on a metal bar with a hook at one end. “Oh. It’s only the fire poker,” I said, as though the stranger was the one needing reassurance. I straightened and took a step, my foot coming in contact with a second bar. “ . . . or two, it seems.” 

A deep chuckle sounded. “I’m glad that is all it was.” His voice was closer now, and I stiffened when I heard something clank nearby. “I believe I’ve found the stand for the poker . . . or two.” 

With more care, I stepped over the bar and resumed my retreat. “Yes, well . . . I’m certain the servants will see that everything is put to rights. Good evening, sir.”

“Good evening, Miss . . . ?” 

I scoffed at his attempt, halting momentarily. “If you believe I will tell you my name, after you have witnessed such a humiliating display, you are more daft than the kind of man who hides in a dark room, refusing to make himself known to unsuspecting females—and, it is said, those are the daftest of men.” 

“Is that what is said?” the stranger asked, amusement behind his words.

“It is a well-known fact, Mister . . . ?”

He clicked his tongue. “I’m afraid if you insist on anonymity, I shall as well.” He stepped closer, and I was certain I could now touch him if I reached out my hand. For the second time, I pushed away the peculiar desire to appease my curiosity. 

“And why would you care to keep your identity a secret?” I asked, realizing how odd it was to be having a conversation with a complete stranger, unable to see more than a vague shape of his figure. 

“Perhaps I shall meet you outside of this room, and I would not want your immediate impression of me to be decided upon. And although, upon further acquaintance, you might come to an identical conclusion of my daftness, perhaps I might find myself in good company?” 

A smile crept its way onto my lips. “Oh, yes. The ‘what a fool I am’ comment I made earlier. In my defense, had I known you were in here, I would have berated myself silently.” I paused. “Or, more reasonably, I would not have entered the room at all.” 

“I suppose, then, that I cannot be sorry I held my tongue.”

My heart fluttered foolishly at his declaration, and I found I now was wearing a ridiculous grin. What in heaven’s name was I doing standing in a dark room with a man I did not know—nor could I see—after having taken part in a reputation-ruining display? “I really ought to go.” 

“I hope we shall meet again soon.” 

“Gracing the throngs of a ball in search of an unknown lady is quite an optimistic view for a lone man hidden away in an unlit parlor.” 

“But I am not alone.”

My cheeks flushed, and I was thankful he could not see the color in the darkness. “If we do not meet again, it was a . . . pleasure.” 

“The pleasure was surely mine,” he said, and I found myself gratified to discern continued interest in his voice.

As I haphazardly started toward the door, I heard voices coming from the corridor. A thump sounded, and laughter rang from just outside. Dread froze me in place as the reality of my situation consumed me—I was unchaperoned in a dark room with a gentleman. It did not matter what had brought us here or that we did not know one another. All that mattered was what this appeared to be—a tryst in a dark, secluded place. The door squeaked open. We were undeniably ruined. 

The light from the corridor intruded upon the darkness. I felt a tight grip on my hand jerking me backward, and I slammed against the stranger awkwardly. He stepped in front of me, wrapping his arms around my back and engulfing my senses in a pleasant blend of sandalwood, spices, and my own citrus scent.

“What are you doing?” I whispered in desperation, pushing against his chest. Did he mean to ensure my ruin?

He held me forcibly, refusing to lessen his grip. “Pretend to cry,” he whispered sharply in my ear. “Trust me.” 

Despite the peculiar situation in which we found ourselves, I had no other choice but to trust him. Without another thought, I collapsed into the stranger’s embrace and gave a small whimper. 

“Gentlemen.” I felt his voice rumble through his chest. “If you don’t mind, my sister here needs a moment of privacy to compose herself.”

The footsteps stopped, and I wondered how much light was on our figures from the open door. I let out a few more sobs to convince them of the truthfulness of the situation. 

“It seems there are some dastardly gentlemen amongst us tonight who find a lady’s heart to be expendable. I have a mind to—”

“No, brother!” I exclaimed. “Do not speak of such things. It is but a trifle, and I will recover soon enough. If only I could be given a little more time to dry my eyes.” 

“Certainly,” came a gentleman’s voice. “We can go elsewhere, and we apologize for the inconvenience.” 

“And for the scoundrel,” another man chimed in. 

“Thank you for your understanding,” the stranger said, holding me protectively against him. 

As the footsteps retreated, I still clutched the man’s coat in my grasp. I did not wish to allow the light of the open door to fall upon me and reveal who I was. The door clicked shut, and the room darkened again. Neither of us moved. 

“I believe we have avoided a scandal,” the stranger said, finally relinquishing his grip on me. 

A shiver ran through me, and I wasn’t certain if it was from the absence of his warmth or the reality of what had occurred. What might the consequence have been without this man’s quick thinking? My knees felt weak beneath me. “I am impressed at your acting skills,” I whispered, attempting to appear unaffected.

“And I yours.” He paused. “Though, just to be clear, I don’t typically take pride in my deceptive abilities. Honesty is one thing I value most in a person.” 

“Well, thank you for making a rare exception tonight.” I squeezed my shaking hands together. “I must go. I do not wish to compromise your integrity twice in one evening.”

“Let me go first,” he said. “I will knock when you can slip from the room unseen.” 

I stepped back, craning my neck up to where his voice was coming from, though I could not see his face. “And let you discover who I am?”

“That was not my purpose,” he said, as though he had just realized his advantage. 

“But an added benefit for your chivalry?”

I once again heard the sound of his smile. “If I give you my word, will you trust me?” 

His steady hand found mine in the darkness, the warmth of it penetrating through my glove. “Yes,” I said, without questioning my reasoning. “I believe I would.”

“You have my word, then. After I knock, I will disappoint every pull of curiosity within me and allow you to leave unseen.” 

“Then I shall await your signal.” 

He slowly lifted my hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss atop my glove. “It has been an honor spending a moment in your company. Perhaps fate will bring us together again.” 

“Perhaps it will.” I hoped he could not decipher the doubt or the disappointment in my voice. Fate was not a friend of mine. 

He turned to leave but paused and drew in close again. The heat from his body radiated against me a second time and sent a strange longing through my entire being. “I’m sorry for having placed you in a compromising situation. I’m truly not the sort of man that remains in a dark room with a lady alone . . . until tonight, that is.” 

Before I could formulate any sort of response, his warmth dissipated.

Offering him the same anonymity he offered me, I turned my gaze away as the door opened and shut. Would I ever discover the identity of the stranger? Likely not. And though I had enjoyed the ease of conversation between us and felt an undeniable connection to him, it wasn’t difficult to convince myself he was most likely a sullen-faced man without a shilling to his name. For what other kind of man would seek refuge at a ball? 

A knock sounded on the door, interrupting my thoughts. Cautiously, I moved through the darkness, using the sound of retreating footsteps as my guide. 

 

*****

Aunt Pembrooke and her friend stood at the edge of the ballroom floor, and I could not avoid listening to their excited chatter about the noteworthy Mr. Huntington from my place behind them. 

“He holds no title, but I have it on good authority that he is fairly flushed in the pockets.” Mrs. Claybourne arched her brows upward. “They say he is now far wealthier than his elder brother, and it has caused quite the discord between them.”

“Well”—Aunt Pembrooke’s lips crept into a smile—“I heard that is not the only discord his wealth has brought.” 

Mrs. Claybourne leaned in with widened eyes. “Do tell.”

“It seems the woman Mr. Huntington was courting at the time that his risky investment was made, rejected his suit because of it. But when word came of his fortune, she returned to him, and he gladly took her back. I’m uncertain of all that happened from there, but it seems there was some sort of trickery on the lady’s part, which he soon discovered. Needless to say, he ended things without delay. And rightly so, for she had a measly dowry to offer and had been entirely untruthful.” 

Mrs. Claybourne lifted a hand to her mouth, scandalously thrilled by the gossip my aunt had offered. 

Poor Mr. Huntington. I didn’t know the man, but I did not envy him. If I had purchased a nearby estate, I would hate to discover that rumors were already circulating about my strained family relationships and failed betrothal. Though perhaps soon I would change my opinion and envy the man, for at least they spoke about him with admiration. If word spread about my embarrassing stumble, it would be with mockery and disdain. Thank heavens the stranger in the darkened parlor had not discovered my identity. The Pembrookes would certainly regret having brought their poor, scandalous relation to Linwick Manor. And as much as I wished to return home, I had no desire to do so in disgrace. 

My gaze swept the ballroom again, pausing on Madalene only briefly before settling on a gentleman tucked against the wall opposite me. He appeared as lonesome as I did, and I wondered if he could be the man from the dark room. His hairline was considerably receded, but he had a good, kind face. I had imagined the stranger to be taller, but the darkness had very likely played tricks on me. 

“Whom are you staring at?” 

I startled at Madalene’s sudden appearance. “Where did you come from? You were just dancing.” 

“The set is over. But it seems you were too preoccupied to notice.” She aimed a teasing grin at me and looked in the direction I had been staring. “What gentleman has caught your fancy?”

“Not a one,” I said, hating how my cheeks reddened in contradiction. 

She lifted a brow. “I shall not press you now, if you promise to tell me later.”

“Truly there is no—”

She lifted a finger and pointed it at me. “Promise.”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Very well. Now tell me how—”

“Madalene, dear.” Aunt Pembrooke beckoned Madalene to her with an urgent gesture. “Do make haste. Mrs. Claybourne shall soon return and wishes to make an introduction.” 

With but one small sigh, Madalene joined her mother. 

As they did not require me for anything, my attention returned to the people moving about the ballroom. The feather lady’s turban was visible near the refreshment table on the far side of the room, and the realization put me at ease. Since I had returned to the ballroom, I ensured our paths did not cross. If I kept myself from notice, perhaps my gaffe would also be forgotten. 

A passing gentleman with dark curls caught my eye, and my mind returned to the stranger. But when I caught a whiff of his minty scent, I frowned. That was not him.

For what seemed like the hundredth time this evening, I chastised myself. Why was I searching for this stranger? I likely would not find him, and if I did, I would never admit my part in it all—for my pride’s sake, for the Pembrookes’ sake, and for his. Whatever it had been that drew him to flirt with me in the darkness would vanish the moment light shone on my situation—I was a governess with no dowry and a scandalous past.

“Mr. Huntington.” The name Mrs. Claybourne spoke drew my attention. “Might I introduce you to Mrs. Pembrooke and her daughter, Miss Pembrooke?” 

Too curious to miss a sighting of the much-anticipated Mr. Huntington, I took a step to the side so that I might catch a glimpse. He raised from his bow, and my heart stuttered. His jawline was strong and his features sharp, but not too much that he looked hard or unapproachable. Brown brows and hair framed a fine pair of hazel-colored eyes. It seemed Peggy’s declaration had been correct, if not somewhat understated. Mr. Huntington was incredibly handsome. 

He gave a polite smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.” 

My whole body went rigid at his familiar, warm voice. But it couldn’t be him. My mind was playing tricks on me again. How inconsiderate of my vivid imagination to make this handsome, rich gentleman the same man from the darkened parlor. 

“The pleasure is ours.” Aunt Pembrooke dipped into a curtsy in unison with Madalene. 

As Madalene lifted, Mr. Huntington’s nostrils flared almost imperceptibly, then the corners of mouth lifted slightly.

“Yes,” Madalene said, her sultry tone on full display. “It seems you have finally ventured from your hiding spot.” 

The way he smiled without reserve made me wonder if I was not imagining things—if he were truly the stranger. But if he was, how had Madalene known he’d been hiding? Had she also happened upon him? It made no sense. She’d danced every set. 

“I assure you, it was no easy task to leave”—his words were thick with meaning—“but how would I have made your acquaintance otherwise?”

It was him! I was nearly certain. But why was he speaking to Madalene as though it had been her in the room with him? My breaths were coming more swiftly, making me dizzy and my legs weak. I took a step back, placing a hand on a column to steady myself so as not to risk a second fall. There was something that I was not understanding. 

“I hear you have purchased Sommerlee?” Aunt Pembrooke beamed, her eyes oscillating between Madalene and Mr. Huntington. 

Reluctantly, he pulled his gaze from my cousin. “I have.” 

“Well, that is not two miles from our own estate. Considering we are now neighbors, I insist you join us for dinner soon.” 

“At Linwick Manor?” He spoke the name hesitantly.

“Why, yes. You know of it?” 

His smile brightened again, and his gaze flitted to Madalene. “I have heard it mentioned.” 

Had I spoken the name of Linwick aloud? I tried to replay the heedless conversation I’d held with myself. Though I had little trouble recalling the way I’d felt in the stranger’s arms, I couldn’t remember what I’d spoken aloud and what had only been a thought. Perhaps Madalene had found an opportunity to interact with him after all. My heart sank a little, but I pushed the thought away. It would be for the best. A man like Mr. Huntington was Madalene’s equal—not mine. 

He held out a hand toward my cousin. “If you are not otherwise engaged, Miss Pembrooke, I would be honored if you would partner with me for the next set.” 

Madalene glanced at Aunt Pembrooke, who gave an encouraging nod. 

She placed her hand in his. “The honor is mine.” 

As I watched Mr. Huntington lead her onto the dance floor, an unfamiliar pang of jealousy shot through me.