Smoky clouds scurried across the London sky as Charles Townsbridge made his way toward the park. He’d gotten into the habit of going for early morning walks years ago when his sister, Sarah, had acquired her first puppy. Their parents, Viscount and Viscountess Roxley, hadn’t known about the stray for quite some time, and since Sarah had feared they’d make her get rid of it if they knew, Charles had offered to help. For the next eight years, he’d taken the dog, who’d been named Mozart, out every morning. Because even when his parents were made aware of Mozart’s existence and had allowed him to remain beneath their roof, it turned out that Sarah did not have the necessary discipline required at her young age to care for a dog. As she’d gotten older, she’d become more responsible and had suggested to Charles that she should start taking Mozart out in the mornings. He’d apparently revealed how loath he was to part with the task, for she’d only done it once before tactfully asking him if he’d mind continuing.
It was now two years since Mozart had gone off to meet his maker, and yet Charles could not seem to stop taking his walks. They provided him with an excellent start to the day, he realized. The fresh air and movement filled his limbs with the energy required to get things done.
Crossing Piccadilly, Charles was caught by a swift gust of wind. It tugged at his jacket, pulling it tight across his chest before pressing a kiss of cool air to his cheeks. Drawing the brim of his hat down over his brow, he quickened his steps and entered the park where trees bowed their heads in greeting. He was not the only one who’d decided to come here this early. He never was, even though the people at this time of day were sparse and oftentimes only visible at a distance.
Turning onto the path to his right, he took the same route as usual: past the flowerbeds, up the hill, and then down across the grass to the lake. A pair of ducks and their ducklings were bobbing on the water when Charles reached the embankment. He stopped to watch, a smile pulling at his lips on account of the fluffy little creatures swimming along behind their parents.
“My bonnet! Please, please, please, stop my bonnet!”
Charles turned in response to the outcry to find a collection of straw, ribbons, and feathers tumbling toward him. Behind it came a young lady, her white muslin skirts hiked up in her hand to reveal her stocking-clad ankles as she raced down the hill in pursuit. An older woman followed on her heels, albeit at a much slower pace.
Determined to help, Charles jogged to the left and caught the straw bonnet right before the wind carried it into the lake. Turning it over in his hand, he straightened the brim and removed a twig and some leaves from the light blue feathers which appeared to be crushed. The ribbons, a slightly darker blue than the feathers, were twisted together, so he untangled them next before fluffing the feathers with his fingers.
“Goodness me,” the young lady panted as she skidded to a halt before him. Her close proximity now allowed him to gauge her age. She did not appear to be more than eighteen. “I scarcely know how to thank you.” She raised her chin with a smile, her blue eyes laughing with quiet amusement. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair undone by the breeze in a way that caused one stray lock to fall in her eye while another trailed over her shoulder. Her mouth, he noted, was a perfect combination of rose-petal pink and strawberry cream.
Charles frowned. He’d never compared a feature to something edible before. More odd was how his heart seemed to be hammering about in his chest. Deciding it had to be due to the effort of catching the droopy accessory, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.
“There’s no need,” he murmured, a little surprised by the low timbre of his voice. “I am happy to have offered assistance.” He handed the item back to her and watched as she returned it to her head, securing it with the ribbons. “I’m also relieved that I caught your bonnet when I did, or I would have been forced to go for a swim.”
Her eyes widened with obvious dismay. “Oh no. I would never have allowed you to do so.”
Smiling with every intention of putting her at ease, he told her wryly, “When a gentleman sets his mind to helping a lady, stopping him can be a challenge.”
The color in her cheeks deepened, and it occurred to Charles she was blushing, which in turn caused a strange surge of heat to creep under his skin. He cleared his throat and acknowledged the older woman who’d now arrived. She panted loudly and gulped down several large breaths while clutching at the side of her waist with one hand.
Charles addressed her. “I believe a short rest on that bench over there might make you feel better.” Stepping forward, he offered her his arm and saw the look of surprise on the young lady’s face.
A complicated mixture of emotions shot through him, compiled from the pleasure of doing something useful and the knowledge that many of those who belonged to his set would not offer help to a servant. And that was clearly what this woman was – a maid, most likely, charged with acting as chaperone.
He guided her to the bench and helped ease her down onto the seat. “Better?” he inquired. The chaperone nodded. “Try taking a few deep breaths. Slowly. Not so fast.”
She did as he suggested and gradually managed to recover from her exertion. “Thank you, sir. I’m ever so grateful for your assistance.”
“As am I,” the young lady told him. She’d followed him and the older woman over to the bench and was stood right beside him.
A jolt of awareness shot through Charles, most likely because she was closer than he’d expected. He turned to face her, his eyes meeting hers and…something indescribable tumbled through him, racing along every vein and snapping at each of his nerves. He’d heard his sisters talk about fated romantic encounters and falling in love at first sight and a slew of other fanciful notions that young girls dreamed of. What he hadn’t imagined was that he would ever have cause to wonder if such things were actually possible or if it might one day happen to him.
He did so now, however, for there was something about this woman that sparked his interest. But then the chaperone coughed, and Charles shook his head. He’d obviously lost his mind. There was no such thing as love at first sight, just physical attraction, which was hardly enough to call for courtship or marriage.
With this in mind, he took a step sideways, adding a bit more distance so as not to have his senses stirred even further by the young lady’s scent. It was far too sweet to be ignored and only served to tempt him with possibilities.
So he touched the brim of his hat with his hand and addressed both women. “It has been a pleasure, but I fear I must be going now since my family will be waiting for me to join them for breakfast.” What reason was there to linger?
“Do you live far from here?” the young lady asked. Her statement was met with a frown and a firm shake of the head from her chaperone. Realizing her error, the young lady bit her lip. “Forgive me. I am often chastised for being too forward, and since you are obviously a bachelor with no ring on your finger and—.”
“My lady,” the chaperone told her mistress tersely.
Charles smiled. He could not help it. “No need for apology,” he said, then touched the brim of his hat once again. “Indeed, I thank you for brightening my morning.” And with that he turned away, making his escape while he was still able – before he did something slightly improper, like give her his card. A gentleman did not offer personal details about himself to a lady with whom he wasn’t acquainted. A proper introduction would be required. Most especially when addressing what he believed might be a debutante.
Bethany watched the tall, broad-shouldered man she’d just met walk away. He’d been handsome. Not classically so, perhaps, but there had been an air about him, a kindness in his coffee-colored eyes that matched his actions. His nose had been straight, his mouth a wonderful indication of what he was thinking, for it had twitched with amusement and curled with pleasure, more animated than any other mouth she’d ever seen.
She sighed, both with happy contentment and some frustration. She could not afford to like this man so well. Not anymore. Not since yesterday afternoon when the Earl of Langdon had come to speak with her father. The offer he’d made for her hand had been precisely what her parents had hoped for, and since Bethany had quite liked the earl and did not wish to disappoint anyone, she’d accepted. Even though there had been no spark.
This spark she’d felt only once in her life. About ten minutes ago when she’d met the man who’d rescued her bonnet. It made her wonder if rushing into a proposal before making her debut had been a mistake. But then she dismissed that idea on the basis of practicality. She was an earl’s daughter after all, raised to marry for convenience. Not because some man whose name she did not even know made her heart beat faster. To even consider such a prospect would be insane.
With a groan of irritation directed at the fact that she would likely wonder about the stranger by the lake for days to come, no matter the pointlessness of it, she addressed her maid, Ruth, who looked quite a bit better now. “Are you ready to return home?”
Ruth nodded and scooted off the bench. They started walking and as they went, Bethany did her best not to think of how perfectly tailored the gentleman’s clothes had been. He had good taste, unlike the dandies, whose choice of clothing she found ridiculous most of the time. And then there was his hair. The dark strands peeking out from beneath the brim of his hat had made him look even more dashing. And—
“My lady,” Ruth said, interrupting Bethany’s thoughts. “I hope you’re not cross with me for reprimanding you slightly in front of the gentleman, but it is my duty to protect you and well, you really ought to know by now that you must not be so forward. Especially not with young men whom you don’t know.”
“Of course. You were quite correct to speak up. And no, I’m not cross with you for it.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.” They continued a few more paces before Ruth added, “All things considered, he did appear to be a gentleman of good standing, so there’s a chance you’ll meet him again this evening at the Roxley ball.”
“Not that it matters,” Bethany said. She glanced at Ruth. “I am now affianced to the Earl of Langdon. Breaking that engagement for any reason would be difficult, but to do so because of a man whose name I don’t even know would be terribly foolish.”
“And possibly ruinous, my lady, which is why I would never suggest such a thing.”
“Just as I would never consider it,” Bethany murmured. “Why would I? After all, I’ve done what every hopeful debutante dreams of doing. I’ve made a brilliant match with no effort at all on my part. I ought to be thrilled.” When Ruth made a hmm sound, Bethany amended, “I am thrilled.”
She and Langdon, or Robert as he now allowed her to call him, had known each other for weeks. Their conversation was amicable, though perhaps a bit reserved. But he did smile when she spoke and had even laughed in her company on occasion. Oh, and he’d also kissed her, which was something, she supposed. Even though it had not been a life-altering kiss, it had been pleasant enough. Certainly, she decided, she and Langdon could be content with each other. And as she walked and the breeze cooled her skin, she accepted that this would simply have to be enough.
When Charles entered the ballroom that evening, he greeted the nearest guests politely then sought out his family. Since his sisters, Athena and Sarah, were still too young to attend such events, they had remained upstairs in their bedchambers for the evening. Instead he found his parents and younger brothers, James and William, scattered about. As hosts, his parents were busy conversing with guests, so he decided to approach James instead.
“Do you know if Robert has arrived yet?” he asked after saying, “Good evening,” to Baron Garret with whom James was speaking.
“I haven’t seen him,” James said, “but he usually tends to arrive late at social events, does he not?”
Charles nodded. His friend was never in a hurry to spend time at balls, for he loathed having to dance, but Charles had hoped he’d make an exception this evening. After all, it was three months since they’d last seen each other. Robert had been away in New York and had only just returned yesterday morning. Charles was eager to hear about his travels.
Excusing himself to James and Garret, Charles went to collect a glass of champagne from the refreshment table. The room was already unbearably hot and clamorous from the mixture of conversation and music that seemed to jab at his ears. Charles glanced at the terrace doors. He’d only just arrived and already longed to escape.
Perhaps just for a moment?
His mother would kill him if she found him hiding away on the terrace when he was supposed to be writing his name on dance cards. He considered the row of wallflowers waiting with hopeful eyes directed at each passing gentleman and decided he’d dance with them all this evening. But not until he’d had a chance to cool down a little.
Following the periphery of the room, he reached the French doors leading onto the terrace and stepped out into the fresh night air. A sigh of relief escaped him as a welcome breeze glided over his hair. He took an invigorating sip of his drink and moved further away from the ballroom to where the air wasn’t hampered by the wide façade of his parents’ home.
A lone woman, silhouetted against the dark garden beyond, was standing near the railing. Charles slowed his progress and prepared to retreat to the opposite corner of the terrace so as not to intrude or risk ruining her reputation by being alone with her.
But then she turned as if sensing him there, and Charles’s heart stumbled. It was she, the young lady from the lake, with the eyes he’d never forget and the smile that did curious things to his insides.
She stared at him as if he’d arrived from a dream she’d been having, as if she would happily risk losing other belongings if it would provide an excuse for them to see each other again. Which Charles acknowledged was the oddest contemplation he’d ever had when he didn’t know one thing about her. Besides the fact that she was curious, forward, and prepared to abandon decorum, at least to sprint after her bonnet.
“I should arrange for a proper introduction,” he said, because that was the only thing that seemed to matter right now – discovering who she was and being allowed to ask her to dance.
She parted her lips as if to respond, but then she appeared to register something and the momentary hint of delight he’d glimpsed was instantly brought to an end. Puzzled, Charles failed to notice the approaching footsteps, but then he felt a hand slap his back and he turned to meet Robert’s sparkling eyes.
A rough bit of laughter escaped him. “God, it’s good to see you again after all this time. I missed our weekly game of billiards.”
Robert grinned. “I’ve much to tell you, my friend, most importantly perhaps, the fact that I’ve gotten engaged.”
Charles stared at the man whom he knew so well and then laughed. “Truly? You must introduce me at once to the marvelous woman who’s managed to tempt you with marriage.”
Robert beamed. “It would seem you’ve already met her.” He gestured to the side and Charles followed the movement with the sense that the flame burning bright in his chest was about to be snuffed out forever. The lady from the lake filled his vision, and as he stared into her gorgeous blue eyes, Robert said, “Allow me to present my fiancée, Lady Bethany Andrews.”