The glittering throng parading about the Duchess of Winshire’s annual ball sported the finest silks money could buy. Jeffrey Graham should know. Much of it traveled to England via Graham shipping. He could estimate the cost of each gown to the penny in most cases.
Graham found their smiles even more artificial than usual, and their conversation more brittle, as if gritted teeth lay behind their rigid facades. The ladies of the Haut Ton pretended, as always, to ignore unpleasant reality, but he knew that the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre the previous fall had rattled them, and, worse, the Cato Street conspiracy weeks before hit closer to home, threatening as it did cabinet members here in London and sending shock waves of fear through the upper ten thousand. Meanwhile reports reached Graham daily of radicals rounded up or killed in Scotland and West Riding.
He watched the Duchess of Devonshire chatting with Liverpool’s wife, their feathered headdresses bobbing, their faces stiffly smiling at passersby. If he remembered correctly—and he rare mistook associations—they were sisters to one another and to the Earl of Bristol, as good an example of the inbred peerage as any, he thought with disgust.
A cluster of debutantes giggled together near a massive pot topped with ferns. Their pastel gowns, so alike they blended into one ruffled swath of pale color, gave none distinction. The unlucky ones, he thought, watching them. Popular girls all had dance partners. These stood between the popular and the dreaded wallflowers, each in danger of sinking into that unfortunate group.
“You might ask one to dance.” His sister sidled up to him, following his line of sight.
“I considered it. Their mothers would find dancing with me worse than having no partner at all, lest their darling pick up the taint of trade,” he said. It was why he kept his attention to wives and widows.
“Mothers perhaps, but any girl would be flattered by the attention of a handsome—and dare I say wealthy—man.” Delia could afford to be generous to the snobs. She had married into the aristocracy twice. She had become the Countess of Clarion the previous fall, and socialized with the open minded, less reactionary branches of society including their hostess.
“Then dance with me,” she said, pulling on his arm. She moved them to the end of a forming set right under the nose of the Duke of Awbury, her former father-in-law.
His lips twitched into a grin, but he tried to frown. “You do like to bait the bear, don’t you?” he asked.
“I like to flaunt my freedom,” she responded. Delia always delighted him, and her elegant but passionate dancing was a joy. He escorted her to the refreshment tables, where the Marquess of Danbury requested her for the next set.
Graham wandered to the card room, searching for a gentleman he meant to charm, one he thought a potential investor, but the conversation there, grim and ugly leaned entirely on the suppression of radicals—which was to say workers. London had become a hive of autocratic buzzing. The accession of the Regent to the Crown in January had done nothing to improve the mood.
“Grim?” Rob Benson strolled over as he left the card room.
“The usual short-sighted rubbish,” Graham sighed. He patted his coat and gestured to the French doors with his head. “Have time for a tipple, or are you working?”
“Why, Graham, who would be working at such a lovely ball?” Benson asked with faux innocence.
Half-brother to Delia’s Earl Clarion, Rob Benson led a clandestine group of security officers, hired, no doubt to ensure the safety of the guests. If they also gathered information for their chief, Viscount Rockford, all the better. Graham wasn’t entirely certain where Rockford’s politics lay, but he trusted Benson, trusted and liked him.
“I’ll leave you to it then. Give my regards to Lucy,” Graham said, before wandering down the side of the ball room farthest from the French doors that opened to the garden.
He nodded to acquaintances. Some returned the greeting. Some ladies pretended not to see him. Too wealthy to give the cut direct; too unfortunate in origins to acknowledge. Others, often wives of men he’d made wealthy, nodded back.
He glanced around for his hostess, wondering if it was too early to slip away to the comfort of his study and first-class brandy.
He stepped into the hallway, only slightly less crowded than the ballroom, but saw no sign of the duchess. He did, however, notice a familiar figure in vivid blue disappear into one of the small sitting rooms that lined the massive Winshire ballroom wing.
He’d met Gemma Burke, Viscount Eaton’s daughter, an ambitious wench, at Clarion’s house party the summer before. She’d worn out shoe leather trying to trap Clarion into marriage only to lose out to Delia. She’d been profoundly unhappy throughout the entire ordeal, however, although why that should matter to Graham, he had no idea.
He turned to walk away, but changed his mind, going instead to the door through which the girl had disappeared. He leaned against the door frame, his face angled away so as not to be obviously listening.
At first, he heard nothing. She was either alone or engaged rather quiet lovemaking. Too quiet. A moment later a sound reached him. Not passion. Weeping. He glanced around, pleased that the hallway had cleared out and the few who remained were absorbed in conversation.
Stepping in, he closed the door behind him. His ears hadn’t deceived him. Miss Gemma Burke lay over a settee weeping. Her attempts to swallow the noise resulted in some ugly snorting and gagging. The imperfection tickled something in Graham. “May I help you, madam?”
The lady jerked upright, wide-eyed with the horror of being caught. “You!” she shouted. “You can’t be here.”
“Yet here I am. No one saw me.” At least she stopped weeping her heart out. “What happened? Did a duke’s heir refuse overtures to secure a dance?”
“Mannington.” The word burst out of her unbidden he assumed.
“The Earl?” A marquess’s heir then. “You’re actually weeping over a dance?”
She glared at him. “If you must know Sir James Elkins asked me immediately afterward. He’s an excellent dancer.”
Good looking too, but without a feather to fly with. “But a mere baronet won’t satisfy your mother.”
Her eyes dropped to the floor. “She saw me.”
The words were so quiet he strained to hear them. The girl was berated for dancing with a baronet? Anger at her stupid parents rose in him, and an imp sprang to life. “Dance with me. That will shock her senseless, and she forget all about Sir James Elkins.”
Her audible gasp and wide eyes in response were laughable. She forgot about her humiliation, much less the weeping. That was his intent. Wasn’t it? “I will thank you, sir, to leave immediately. It isn’t at all proper for us to be here alone. If someone were to see us…”
“I might be forced to marry you.” Her face contorted in horror at that thought. Marriage to a merchant—unthinkable.
Note: excerpts from works in progress may have not yet been edited, will likely undergo change, and may not even make it into the final work!