“Since when does Holland House give entrance to wife-beaters?” the doddering viscount sniffed with disdain to an equally aged companion, whose head nodded in continual agreement.
The subject of this attack strode past, head turning neither to the left nor to the right as he entered the throng in the reception room.
“A scandal to do with his wife,” a voice whispered behind him.
“. . .mysterious, but isn’t he dashing, Mona? Just look how dark he is, like some Corsair.”
“Bessie, come away from there. What would Mr. Evans think if he heard you were taking after the likes of that one?”
“But he’s a hero, mama, decorated in Corunna, they say. . .”
“. . .rutting bounder, I say. All those medals represent is a propensity for violence, if you ask my opinion.”
Austin Atwood, Earl of Heathmont, grimaced to himself but continued to ignore the whispers that followed him like a rustling breeze through the anteroom of Holland House. He had only one purpose here, and once it was served, he would remove himself from the hostile society he had avoided these past years.
Though he walked with a pronounced limp, he held his shoulders proudly. His striking visage, though not handsome in the conventional mold, continued to draw stares as he waded through a tide of pastel debutantes, doting mamas, and bored gentlemen. Though born to this aristocratic society, he moved with a determined stride unfitting for this indolent crowd.
Gaining the portals of the ballroom, the earl paused just within the archway. Crystal chandeliers glittered over an array of jewels and silk gowns, interspersed with the more sedate attire of gentlemen in black silk breeches and long-tailed frock coats. But even the gentlemen sported diamond stickpins and gold watch fobs and their black silk and polished leather gleamed subtly in the brilliant candlelight. This impressive array of wealth could scarcely be ignored so easily as the whispers behind him, particularly for one so sorely lacking in funds as he.
Taking the time to orient himself before diving into the unknown, Heathmont glanced about, noting that friends and acquaintances from earlier days were few and far between. Most of them had outgrown the marriage mart and moved on to other, more sophisticated circles. The debutantes and their escorts here tonight were of a younger generation, and his only familiarity with them was through the identity of their watchful parents whose older daughters he had once escorted about this same room. If it were not for the political maneuverings conducted in the back rooms, he would never have entered this rarefied circle again.
His bored glance fell upon a golden statue nearly hidden by a potted palm at his elbow. Ignoring the statue’s rather large companion in frilly pink, he allowed himself to be distracted. Blondes seldom interested him, but the still grace and unusual coloring of this particular piece of art gained his passing admiration. In this hothouse of gardenia petal complexions, the golden and rose hues of the young lovely’s cheeks glowed like dawn after a moonless night.
Stepping back and lounging against the wall for a better view of this exotic creature, the earl noted with disappointment the girl’s extreme youth. It seemed a pity to waste all that extravagant loveliness on an empty-headed child, but it didn’t prevent his admiring the vision.
Gowned in shimmering gossamer that must have cost its weight in spun gold, the girl seemed oddly oblivious to the crowd of people jockeying for position around her. Flaxen curls had been neatly coiffed on top of her head and dangled fashionably about her oval face, and she carried the requisite fan to flirt and flutter, but she the provocative appurtenance hung lifelessly from her wrist. Instead, she seemed to be gazing with nearsighted intensity into the crowd of dancers.
A familiar voice hailing him diverted the earl’s attention.
“Heathmont! There you are. I’d about given up on you, though I’d scarcely blame you for avoiding this squeeze.” A slender man of about the earl’s own age pushed absently at the bridge of his nose, as if adjusting nonexistent spectacles.
“If you want something, you have to work for it, Averill,” the earl replied, focusing his attention on this one friend who had not deserted him. “Have you found out anything yet?”
The elder son of a younger son of a duke, Averill Beresford—commonly known as Emery for obscure reasons—held no lands of his own, but his position in society was secure and unquestioned. Enormously liked by all his acquaintances, he never had reason to question the company he kept on his own account, but his anxiety for his sardonic friend showed in his expression.
“It’s the times, Heath.” Averill shrugged apologetically. “The duke is in the briars over this Regency business, being a Tory and all and not knowing when or if Prinny will change his mind about the cabinet. He has to be everywhere at once. My father will reach him sooner or later.”
The earl frowned at this news and his attention drifted. Clad in a tailored coat of black suiting that had been purchased in his younger days, his shoulders shifted restlessly within its confines. Though he had lost a stone or so since those grain-fed days of his youth, he had gained an athletic strength that did not fit well in court dress.
With the knowledge that the duke and his cronies would not attend this reception, the earl lost interest in the evening. Feeling the black mood coming upon him again, he slowed its arrival by returning his gaze to the golden child nearby.
To his surprise, the girl’s charming features suddenly lit with a candle glow of expectation that captivated him. With an unexpected twinge of envy, Heathmont searched for the lucky man who merited such a smile.
A young gentleman arrived in the entry with a self-important tread, his slender frame impeccably tailored, his immaculate lawn cravat expertly tied, and his quizzing glass discreetly hung on a silver chain. This young dandy would have only been a greenling when Heathmont last attempted London society, and his name escaped him. Still, the youth gave the appearance of a respectable young lord and the ideal candidate for a marriage-minded young miss.
Bored with the commonplaceness of this tableau, the earl gave the girl one last glance, only to be caught by the sight of two tears sparkling in wide jade eyes. Long lashes quickly swept toward delicate cheekbones, but not in time to hide the telltale trace of a teardrop.
Frowning, the earl sought the young lordling again, only to discover the cad bowing before the plump miss in pink and deliberately ignoring the golden girl at her side. Heath had been subject to enough cruel cuts himself to not recognize one when he saw it, and his long-buried anger asserted itself.
With haughty aloofness he elbowed aside the simpering miss and her young lord, and with a gallant bow he smiled his pleasure at the young girl in gold.
“My dance, at last, I believe?” he murmured with masculine warmth.