First Page: A Duke’s Ode to Beauty – historical romance
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Sunday, 9 May.
As was her habit, Lady Maribella Strathmore was late.
Late for London’s Season, since her parents insisted on spending Eastertide in Lancashire.
Late tonight for Lady Tilghman’s ball, though that was no grave impropriety, for the most fashionable guests always were.
And late, now, for her assignation with Lord Robert Tilghman in his father’s library. The room was equally well-suited as a refuge from the assembly’s crush of suitors and a rendezvous for confidantes or lovers.
Properly speaking, Lord Robert was neither of these. Yet.
The hall clock chimed. Half past ten.
Maribel gave a quick glance back. The taps of slippers and boots mingled with string-players’ energetic music and echoed down the empty corridor. Relief loosened her breath. A long quadrille meant at least a quarter-hour before she’d be missed.
She entered with a soft swish of her gown and closed the door shut against the sounds of the ball.
A pair of blazing hearth-fires assaulted her eyes. The flames danced like tipsy debutantes, their bright glare reflected on a half-dozen highly-polished tables and shimmering over the rows of gilt-encrusted bindings.
On the far side, a circular staircase stood sentinel. In its shadow, the back of a sphinx-legged couch sprouted not one but two debonairly-coiffed heads.
Was the blonde one Lord Robert’s? Dark Hair leaned close to him, as if in conversation, their whispers indistinct. A brandy glass, sporting gemmed-fingers and elegant cuffs, rose from that side of the couch.
She hadn’t expected any other companions. Certainly not another man.
Her hand fumbled for the doorknob.
“Merry!” The golden-haired man stood up.
Her heart cinched at the familiar voice. “Freddy?”
Her younger brother wasn’t due from Harwich for another fortnight. She wasn’t so gothic as to believe in ghosts.
He crossed into the light, where his regimentals gave proof of him. “I almost resigned myself to your not coming.” He laughed. “Should’ve guessed you’d lose track of the time! Didn’t know if Tilly was to be trusted, what. ‘Fraid he was apt to play me.”
Her mind spun. Days of planning this faux tryst, only to have it undone by Lord Robert’s mistaken generosity.
“Come, have a kiss.” Freddy walked ’round, opening his arms.
No mere apparition had such form and substance or rough wool sleeves. She pulled him close. Her nose curled at the rank smell of brandy and pipe tobacco.
“Dear Freddy! Must you always surprise us?” His coats muffled her words.
“A fine thing to see you, too!” His voice prickled as he slipped out of her embrace, though his smile still warmed her.
Mr. Dark Hair, face averted, hadn’t so much as risen for an introduction. How impolite.
She upbraided him with her severest look, which he proceeded to ignore, apparently absorbed in running his finger along the rim of his glass. Already in his cups, indolent fellow.
Well, she never expected much from Freddy’s friends, however finely tailored their evening wear or handsomely wound their cravats.
Dismal manners deserved the same in return. She cut away and drew Freddy towards the fireplace. His cheeks were unnaturally pale, his eyes worn with sleeplessness.
She looped her hands in his. “How long have you been in town?”
“But today, of course!” All swagger, that lopsided grin. “Took a fast horse when I had the chance.” He swung his head towards her ear. “I had letters, of course.–Oh, oughtn’t speak of that. Don’t relay it to none.–Suffice it to say, I went to Whitehall straight off, then gave my regards to our Father whom I knew I’d find at the East India Club, shared a drink or two and traded stories of tigers and piratical traders, and set off for–someplace… Well, best not speak of that, either. Round about dinner we finally made it to White’s, and whom do you think we found?”