My American Duchess(2)

By: Eloisa James

“Lord Almighty, this room is overheated!” Her aunt started fanning herself so energetically that the feathers on her headdress billowed like a ship’s sails. “I feel as hot as a black pudding.”

“Why don’t we go onto the balcony?” Merry suggested. Its doors stood open in a fruitless attempt to cool the room.

“If it’s stopped raining,” Bess said dubiously. Once in the cool night air, she quickly recovered. “Your Cedric is dazzling,” she exclaimed, snapping her fan shut. “A title is all very well, my dear, but I think it’s better to judge a husband on his own merits—on the plain naked man, if you take my meaning.”

“Aunt Bess!” Merry tugged her from the open doorway. “You must watch what you say. English gentlewomen aspire to modesty.”

It hardly need be said that Bess didn’t share their aspirations. “That ballroom is full of women pretending never to have gawked at a man’s wishbone,” she pointed out, “whereas in reality they walk around the room like butchers’ wives at a fish market.”

“Englishwomen have very refined manners,” Merry objected.

“So they’d like to think. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, m’dear. Look at the fashions here. I appreciate those silk pantaloons as much as the next woman.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “Aunt Bess!”

“You’re betrothed again, so I can speak my mind,” Bess replied, unperturbed. “Mind you, speaking of pantaloons, your Cedric is certainly a well-timbered fellow.” She gave a throaty chuckle. “That reminds me—I promised to dance this quadrille with your uncle. He’s as clumsy as a June bug, but he does enjoy a nice gallop around the room. Come along, dear.”

“If you don’t mind, Aunt, I’d rather stay here for a few minutes.”

Her aunt gave her a squeeze. “How I love that smile of yours! Your Cedric is a perfect lady’s playfellow. Come your wedding night, the two of you will be as merry as crickets in a fireplace.”

With that, her aunt reentered the ballroom, feathers and fan flapping.

Merry wrapped her shawl around herself to ward off the April air and tipped back her head to look at the sky.

She kept forgetting that no stars shone above London, rain or no. Fog and smoke turned the streets dark by four in the afternoon.

But Cedric loved the city, so they would live here. There was no point in longing for starlight. Or gardens, for that matter.

Merry had a passion for gardens that went beyond her school friends’ delight in arranging bouquets. She liked to “muck about in the dirt,” as her uncle called it, rooting up plants and rearranging them until she had laid out the perfect garden.

Just then a man shot across to the balustrade and muttered a string of oaths that no young lady was meant to overhear.

She drifted a step closer, pleased at the opportunity to augment her vocabulary of forbidden phrases. Alas, the only word she caught was “bollocks,” and she already knew that one. As she watched, his fingers curled around the rail in a controlled but furious gesture.

Most likely, someone had snubbed him, and he’d come out here to regain his composure. English aristocrats, as she’d discovered since her arrival in London, had a penchant and a talent for delivering withering remarks. She’d seen her own darling Cedric issue several snubs himself, though only when mightily provoked.

Why, if she were the type to take offense, she’d be cross at half the guests here tonight, given the way they mocked her Boston accent.

The man glowering down at an innocent whitethorn hedge was probably from one of the lower rungs of the social ladder, someone whom most people in that ballroom would look right through.

In America, he would be free to make his own way, judged on his merits, not his birth. But here? One was born into a social class, and in that class one remained until death.

The man certainly wasn’t wealthy. Cedric’s attire glittered with gold thread and gilt buttons, but this fellow’s coat was as plain and black as a Quaker’s.

Even from where she stood, she could tell that his cravat had no more than a touch of starch and was tied in a simple knot. In fact, he might be without the services of a valet, as his hair was cut short and wasn’t in the least modish.

Perhaps he was American. It would explain his unfashionable hair and coat. With a surge of patriotic fellow-feeling, she moved over to him and lightly touched his sleeve.

When he turned to face her, she knew instantly that she’d been wrong not only about his nationality, but about his rank. The hard line of his jaw and the arrogance of his manner marked him, without question, as a member of the British peerage. Even his hair, the color of tarnished guineas, looked aristocratic.

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