» Excerpt: Diary of an Accidental Wallflower

Excerpt: Diary of an Accidental Wallflower

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Coming soon, February 24, 2015

“One of my favorite new writers!” (Julia Quinn, New York Times Bestselling Author)

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May 2, 1848

Dear Diary,

If a man’s worth is measured in pounds, a woman’s is measured in dance steps.

And if those dance steps are with a future duke, surely they are worth all the more.

Mr. Alban, the future Duke of Harrington, asked me to dance again last night, the third time since the start of the Season. My friends are abuzz with what he might ask next, and I confess, I hope it is something more significant than a dance. I know the Season has just begun, but surely a proposal cannot be far from his mind?

When I feel the sting of jealousy from the less fortunate girls lining the walls, I remind myself some casualties are inevitable if I am to dance all the way to a ducal mansion. Any girl who feels tempted to accept the first offer that comes their way would do well to comfort themselves on the arm of a mere marquess.

Miss Clare Westmore

The Future Duchess of Harrington

 

Chapter 1

 

Miss Clare Westmore wasn’t the only young woman to fall head-over-heels for Mr. Charles Alban, the newly named heir to the Duke of Harrington.

Though, she was probably the only one to fall quite so literally.

He appeared out of nowhere, broad-shouldered and perfect, trotting his horse down one of the winding paths near the Serpentine. His timing was dreadful. For one, it was three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, hardly a fashionable hour for anyone to be in Hyde Park. For another, she’d come down to the water with her siblings in tow, and the ducks and geese they’d come to feed were already rushing toward them like a great screeching mob.

Her sister, Lucy, poked an elbow into her ribs. “Isn’t that your duke?”

Clare’s heart galloped well into her throat as the sound of hoofbeats grew closer. What was Mr. Alban doing here? Riders tended to contain themselves to Rotten Row, not this inauspicious path near the water. If he saw her now it would be an unmitigated disaster. She was wearing last Season’s walking habit—fashionable enough for the ducks, but scarcely the modish image she wished to project to the man who could well be her future husband. Worst of all, she was with Lucy, who brushed her hair approximately once a week, and her brother Geoffrey, who ought to have been finishing his first year at Eton but was expelled just last week for something more than the usual youthful hijinks.

Clare froze in the center of the milling mass of birds, trying to decide if it would be wiser to lift her skirts and run or step behind the cover of a nearby rhododendron bush. One of the geese took advantage of her indecision and its beak jabbed at her calf through layers of silk and cotton. Before she knew what was happening—or even gather her wits into something resembling a plan—her thin-soled slipper twisted out from under her and she pitched over onto the ground with an unladylike oomph. She lay there, momentarily stunned.

Well then. The rhododendron it was.

She tucked her head and rolled into the shadow of the bush, ignoring low-hanging branches that reached out for her. The ducks, being intelligent fowl, followed along. They seized the crumpled bag of bread still clutched in her hand and began gulping down its contents. The geese—being, of course, quite the opposite of ducks—shrieked in protest and flapped their wings, stirring up eddies of down and dust.

Clare tucked deeper into the protection of the bush, straining to hear over the avian onslaught. Had she been seen? She didn’t think so. Then again, her instincts had also told her no one of importance would be on this path in Hyde Park at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and look how well those thoughts had served.

“Oh, what fun!” Lucy laughed, every bit as loud as the geese. “Are you playing the damsel in distress?”

“Perhaps she is studying the mating habits of water fowl,” quipped Geoffrey, whose mind always seemed to be on the mating habits of something these days. He tossed a forelock full of blond hair out of his eyes as he offered her a hand, but Clare shook her head. She didn’t trust her brother a wit. At thirteen years old and five and a half feet, he was as tall as some grown men, but he retained an adolescent streak of mischief as wide as the Serpentine itself.

He was as likely to toss her into Alban’s path as help her escape.

Lucy cocked her head. Wisps of tangled blond hair rimmed her face like dandelion fluff and made her appear far younger than her seventeen years, though her tall frame and evident curves left no doubt that she was old enough to show more care with her appearance. “Shall I call Mr. Alban over to request his assistance, then?” she asked, none too innocently.

“Shhhh,” Clare hissed. Because the only thing worse than meeting the future Duke of Harrington while dressed in last year’s walking habit was meeting him while wallowing in the dirt. Oh, but she should never have worn such inappropriate shoes to go walking in Hyde Park. Then again, such hindsight came close to philosophical brilliance when offered up from the unforgiving ground.

She held her breath until the sound of hoofbeats began to recede into the distance. Dimly, she realized something hurt. In fact, something hurt dreadfully. But she couldn’t quite put her finger on the source when her mind was spinning in the more pertinent directions.

“Why are you hiding from Mr. Alban?” Lucy asked pointedly.

“I am not hiding.” Clare struggled to a sitting position and blew a wayward brown curl from her eyes. “I am … er … feeding the ducks.”

Geoffrey laughed. “Unless I am mistaken, the ducks have just fed themselves, and that pair over there had a jolly good tup while the rest of them were tussling over the scraps. You should have invited your duke to join us.”

“He’s not yet a duke,” Clare corrected crossly. Much less her duke.

But oh, how she wanted him to be.

“Pity to let him go by without saying anything. You could have shown him your overhanded throw, the one you use for Cook’s oldest biscuits.” Geoffrey pantomimed a great arching throw out into the lake. “That would impress him, I’m sure.”

The horror of such a scene—and such a brother—made Clare’s heart thump in her chest. To be fair, feeding the ducks was something of a family tradition, a ritual born during a time when she hadn’t cared whether she was wearing least year’s frock. These days, with their house locked in a cold, stilted silence and their parents nearly estranged, they retreated here almost every day. And she could throw Cook’s biscuits farther than either Lucy or Geoffrey, who took after their father in both coloring and clumsiness. It was almost as if they had been cut from a different bolt of cloth, coarse wool to Clare’s smooth velvet.

But these were not facts one ought to share with a future duke—particularly when that future duke was the gentleman you hoped would offer a proposal tonight. No, better to wait and greet Mr. Alban properly this evening at Lady Austerley’s annual ball, when Lucy and Geoffrey were stashed safely at home and she would be dressed in tulle and diamonds.

“I don’t understand.” Lucy stretched out her hand, and this time Clare took it. “Why wouldn’t you wish to greet him? He came to call yesterday, after all, and I was given the impression you liked him very much.”

Clare pulled herself to standing and winced as a fresh bolt of pain snatched the breath from her lungs. “How do you know about that?” she panted. “I didn’t tell anyone.” In fact, she’d cajoled their butler, Wilson, to silence. It was imperative word of the visit be kept from their mother, who—if last Season’s experience with potential suitors was any indication—would have immediately launched a campaign to put Waterloo to shame.

“I know because I spied on you from the tree outside the picture window.” Lucy shrugged. “And didn’t you say that he asked you to dance last week?”

“Yes,” Clare agreed between gritted teeth. Mr. Alban had asked her to dance last week, a breathless waltz that sent the room spinning and held all eyes upon them. It was the third waltz they had shared since the start of the Season—though not all on the same night, more’s the pity. But the glory of that dance paled in comparison to the dread exacted by Lucy’s confession.

Had her sister really hung apelike from a limb and leered at the man through the window? Except … hadn’t Alban sat with his back to the window?

She breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, she was almost sure of it.

He’d spent the entire quarter hour with his gaze firmly anchored on her face, their conversation easy. But despite the levity of their exchange, he’d seemed cautious, as though he were hovering on the edge of some question that never materialized but that she fervently wished he’d just hurry up and ask.

Given his unswerving focus, there was no way he would have seen her clumsy heathen of a sister swinging through the branches, though she shuddered to think that Lucy could have easily lost her balance and come crashing through the window in a shower of broken glass and curse words. But thankfully nothing of the sort had happened. No awkward siblings had intruded on the flushed pleasure of the moment. Her mother had remained oblivious, distracted by her increasing irritation with their father and her shopping on Bond Street.

And to Clare’s mind, Mr. Alban had all but declared his intentions out loud.

Tonight, she thought fiercely. Tonight would be the night when he asked for more than just a dance. And that was why it was very important for her to tread carefully, until he was so irrevocably smitten she could risk the introduction of her family.

“I do admire him,” she admitted, her mind returning reluctantly to the present. “I just do not want him to see me looking like …” Clare glanced down at her grass-stained skirts and picked at a twig that had become lodged in the fabric. “Well, like this.”

Lucy frowned. “I scarcely think his admiration should be swayed by a little dirt.”

“And you didn’t look like that before you dove behind that bush,” Geoffrey pointed out. “Stunning bit of acrobatics, though. You ought to apply to the circus, sis.”

“I didn’t dive behind the bush.” Clare battled an exasperated sigh. She couldn’t expect either of them to understand. Lucy still flitted through life not caring if her hair was falling down. Such obliviousness was sure to give her trouble when she came out next year. Clare herself couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been acutely aware of every hair in its place, every laugh carefully cultivated.

And Geoffrey was … well … Geoffrey.

Loud, male, and far too crude for polite company.

As a child, the pronounced differences between herself and her siblings had often made her wonder if perhaps she had been a foundling, discovered in a basket on the front steps of her parents’ Mayfair home. She loved her brother and sister, but who wouldn’t sometimes squirm in embarrassment over such a family?

And what young woman wouldn’t dream of a dashing duke, destined to take her away from it all and install her within the walls of his country estate?

Clare took a step, but as her toe connected with the ground, the pain in her right ankle punched through the annoyance of her brother’s banter. “Oh,” she breathed. And then, as she tried another step, “Ow! I … I must have twisted my ankle when I fell.”

“I still say you dove,” Geoffrey smirked.

Lucy looked down with a frown. “Why didn’t you say something?” she scolded. “Can you put any weight on it at all?”

“I didn’t realize at first.” Indeed, Clare’s mind had been too much on the threat of her looming social ruin to consider what damage had been done to her person. “And I am sure I can walk on it. Just give me a moment to catch my breath.”

She somehow made her way to a nearby bench, ducks and geese scattering like ninepins. By the time she sat down, she was gasping in pain and battling tears. As she slid her dainty silk slipper off, all three of them peered down at her stocking-encased foot with collective indrawn breaths. Geoffrey loosened an impressed whistle. “Good God, sis. That thing is swelling faster than a prick at a bawdy show.”

“Geoffrey!” Clare’s ears stung in embarrassment, though she had to imagine it was an apt description for the swollen contours of her foot. “This is not Eton, we are not your friends, and that will be quite enough.”

“Don’t you have Lady Austerley’s ball tonight?” Lucy asked, her blue eyes sympathetic. “I can’t imagine you can attend like this. In fact, I feel quite sure we ought to carry you home and call for the doctor, straight away.”

But Clare’s mind was already tilting in a far different direction. This evening’s ball hadn’t even crossed her mind when she had been thinking of the pain, but now she glared down at her disloyal ankle. No, no, no. This could not be happening. Not when she was convinced Mr. Alban would seek her out for more than just a single dance tonight.

It didn’t hurt so much when she was sitting.

Surely it would be better in an hour or so.

“Of course I can go.” She struggled to slip her shoe back on, determined to let neither doubts nor bodily deficiency dissuade her. “Just help me home, and don’t tell Mother,” she added, “and everything will be fine.”

***

“You belong in bed, not in a ballroom.”

Dr. Daniel Merial chased this medical opinion with his most impressive glower and prayed his patient would see reason. He’d been summoned to 36 Berkeley Square by a furtive note, delivered to the morgue at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He’d come immediately, no matter that he’d been forced to abandon a body lying half dissected on the theater table. The deceased was of unusual height and abnormal bone density, and a cataloging of the body’s physical findings would have lent itself well to a paper on the subject.

But it was an opportunity now lost.

The physician who’d taken over the case had seemed far more interested in helping the students position the corpse into grotesque, suggestive poses than locating a pencil to record his findings. It irked Daniel to turn a perfectly interesting cadaver over to a fool like that, but St. Bart’s was full of pompous young doctors whose positions had been secured by wealthy fathers willing to contribute to a new hospital wing, rather than any clear demonstration of intelligence. Unlike them, he needed to supplement his meager instructor’s salary by serving as a personal physician to the wealthy and cantankerous, at the beck and call of London’s elite.

Though this patient, in particular, was proving a very troublesome case.

Lady Austerley’s lips thinned—if indeed an aging dowager countess’s lip could thin any more than nature already commanded. “Cancelling my annual ball is not an option, Dr. Merial. It is seven o’clock already. Half of London will be summoning their coaches, and the other half will be lamenting their lack of an invitation.” She rubbed her gnarled hands together. “Now, surely you have some more of that marvelous medication. It helped so much the last time you gave it to me.”

Daniel sighed, suspecting this irksome venture could be explained by little more than an old lady’s lonely pride. It had not escaped his notice that he was one of Lady Austerley’s most frequent—indeed, one of her only—visitors. Her husband was long dead, and their forty year union had not been blessed with children. The cousin who had inherited her husband’s title never came to call. She’d outlived her friends, and now she seemed determined to outlive her heart.

“The belladonna extract is a temporary fix, at best,” he warned, “and may well do more damage to your heart in the long term. What you need is rest, and plenty of it.”

“But I am resting.” Lady Austerley offered him a smile, one that showed her false ivory teeth in all their preternatural glory. “You see, I am lying down on the bed while my maid curls my hair.” As if offering testimony to this nonsensical thought, the pink-cheeked maid—who’d been casting him dream-filled glances since his arrival—pulled the curling tongs from her mistress’s thinning gray hair with an audible hiss.

“And I promise not to dance,” the countess continued, “if you would but leave a draught or two, enough to get me through this evening.”

Daniel was sorely tempted to leave her laudanum instead, but he wasn’t sure he had the heart to deceive her into sleep. Lady Austerley could be difficult, but she had also been his first substantial client in London. Her remarkable and unexpected patronage had opened the doors of his fledgling practice, and he was only now beginning to attract the occasional notice of other well-connected clients.

But that didn’t mean she actually listened to him.

His client might be lying down in bed, but she was also already dressed for her ball, swaddled in a gown of gold brocade that at turns threatened to asphyxiate and dazzle. The room should have smelled of camphor, but instead it smelled of French perfume and the faint, acrid scent of burning hair. “I told you weeks ago you were making yourself ill, Lady Austerley.” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “You ought to have cancelled the event then. Instead, you’ve exhausted yourself with preparations.”

“You did tell me my remaining time fell on the side of months, rather than years, did you not?” At his nod, she shrugged her thin shoulders—unapologetically, to Daniel’s mind. “I am determined to make my last days memorable, and give them all something they won’t soon forget. What was that bit of Latin you quoted for me?”

Her expectant pause made him want to fidget. “Quam bene vivas referre, non quam diu,” he admitted reluctantly.

It is how well you live that matters, not how long.

He’d offered her the phrase soon after it became clear her condition was carrying her surely and steadily toward the grave. But he’d meant to encourage her to reflect on the life she had led. He’d certainly not intended it to be a dictum for how she should go on.

Her frown shifted to a wrinkled smile. “There, you see?” she beamed, quite pleased with herself. “I am just following my doctor’s orders.”

“Lady Austerley, you must know you are shortening the time you have left by the very choices you make now. You could easily suffer another fainting spell tonight, even with the medication,” he warned. “You were fortunate your maid was attending you during your bath this afternoon when the latest one struck, or you might have drowned. This is the second attack you’ve experienced this week, is it not?”

The dowager countess nodded innocently.

“My lady is perhaps forgetting several spells,” the maid piped up. “By my count, it is the fourth such episode since Monday.”

Lady Austerley turned her gimlet glare on the younger woman. “Am I to count higher mathematics among your skills as my ladies’ maid now? I cannot believe you bothered our beleaguered doctor with that note. I imagine it had as much to do with you wishing to see him again as any need for me to. You’ve been mooning over him for months.”

The poor maid blushed, but not before her eyes darted tellingly in Daniel’s direction. “I was thinking only of your health, my lady.”

“Hrmmph.” Lady Austerley’s gaze shifted back. She lifted the quizzing glass she always kept around her neck, and he felt the sting of the older woman’s visual dissection. “Not that I blame you,” she added, a wrinkled smile playing about her lips. “He’s a stunning specimen, with all that thick, dark hair and those soulful brown eyes. Makes an old woman’s heart flutter, even one whose heart is just barely ticking along. Truth be told, he puts these new London bucks to shame.”

Daniel raised a brow, determined to circle this conversation away from the issue of whether or not he was considered attractive to the female species and back around to the medical issue at hand. “Lady Austerley—” he said sternly.

But she was not yet through. She lowered her lens and struggled to a sitting position as the maid plumped her pillow. “It’s his heart that makes him different, though. Heart of gold, to come rushing to an old lady’s aid like this. These young men today can’t be bothered to look further than their phaetons for entertainment.”

Daniel fought the urge to roll his eyes.

“I would have you come to the ball tonight and put my theory to the test, Dr. Merial.” Lady Austerley lifted her quizzing glass again. “Yes, yes, my personal physician in attendance. That would be just the thing to show them all.”

Daniel breathed out through his nose. Show them what, precisely? Her loss of sanity? He was tempted to dismiss her nattering as the beginnings of dementia. But alas, he knew there was nothing at all wrong with Lady Austerley’s head. She was as lucid as a lark.

He might have stood a better chance at changing her mind if she wasn’t.

“It sounds as though your attacks are increasing in frequency, as I predicted they would. Your heart is failing. You should be confined to your bed, if not to ward off these periods of syncope, to at least ensure when they occur you do not risk falling and causing more serious injury.” He took in the dowager countess’s impossibly straight back. “And didn’t I advise against wearing a corset? You cannot afford to restrict your breathing further.”

Lady Austerley waved a fist, the ropy veins crisscrossing the backs of her hands like twisted paths to truth. “I cannot have a ball without a corset, and as I’ve already said, I refuse to entertain the notion of cancelling the event. I must carry on, at least until tonight is behind me. Which is why I need you there, in case I suffer another spell.”

“I cannot prevent these attacks,” he informed her gravely. “I can only advise you on what you must do to reduce their frequency.”

“Perhaps you cannot prevent them, but I will feel better knowing you are there.” She tossed a bemused look at her maid, who was still star-gazing in Daniel’s direction. “And if I should be so unfortunate as to feel off-balance again, surely if you are already present we can manage another episode with far less drama than this afternoon’s little spell has entailed.”

The maid blushed further, and tucked her head.

Daniel hesitated. He enjoyed spending time with the dowager countess, but he already had plans for this evening, plans that involved patients who didn’t disagree with his diagnoses—namely, the unfinished cadaver he’d left lying prone on the theater table. If he agreed to this farce of an idea, he would need to slip back to his rooms now to bathe and dress instead of returning to the morgue. He’d also planned another phase of his experiment for later this evening, testing varying doses of a promising new compound called chloroform with the anesthetic regulator he was developing. Losing valuable hours at a ball was not high on his list of priorities.

Although, if he were brutally honest, tonight’s event might benefit him in the long run. He was very afraid Lady Austerley might not live to see Christmas. He would regret the eventual loss of that income, though not as much as he would regret the loss of her sometimes prickly friendship. Tonight would be an opportunity for introductions to future clients, if nothing else.

The countess leaned back against her mountain of plush pillows, and her hand crept out to grab his own. Her frail touch was a shock. He could feel her thready pulse, beating faintly through her bones, hinting at coming trouble. “I would ask this of you, Dr. Merial. As a favor to a scared old lady whose heart needs to last through at least one more ball.”

Daniel swallowed his misgivings. How could he say no to such a request?

She had no family to speak of, no remaining close friends. She was lonely and ailing and he’d been unable to refuse the dowager countess anything since their first chance meeting, when she’d fainted dead away in St. Paul’s Cathedral and he’d been the only one with enough sense to come to her aid. He squeezed her hand. “If it would ease your mind.”

“Excellent.” Lady Austerley smiled. “I’ll have an invitation penned for you, posthaste.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Clare’s ankle wasn’t better in an hour or so.

Neither had it improved by the time the coach was brought around to the front door, nor by the time she stepped into Lady Austerley’s vaulted foyer. If anything, it was worse, sporting whimsical new shades of red and purple and stealing her breath with every step.

“Do try to keep up, dear.” Her mother frowned over her shoulder, the red feather on her headdress bobbing with discontent. “I declare, you dawdle more like your father every day.”

Clare gritted her teeth. She could not admit to her mother the real reason for her hesitation, or else risk being whisked home to bed. And any comparisons to Father were to be avoided if her mother was to remain in an ebullient mood this evening. She hobbled faster, her mismatched shoes clunking ominously on the marble tile.

Step, thump. Step, thump.

Her mother didn’t seem to notice, but Clare’s cheeks heated at the disparate sounds. She ought to be grateful Lucy was possessed of overlarge feet and, moreover, had been willing to donate an old shoe to the nearly lost cause of getting her foot into something approximating a slipper. At least she hadn’t needed to resort to wearing Geoffrey’s shoe.

But gratitude was not foremost on Clare’s mind as her mother gave their name to the footman. She lifted her chin, knowing that aside from the travesty of her mismatched shoes, she had never looked better. Her maid had taken hours with her hair, and her new green gown was an absolute wonder, clinging to her shoulders with what appeared to be nothing more than hasty prayer. But though the gown’s voluminous skirts hid her feet from public view, they could not change the fact her ankle still felt like a sausage shoved in a too-tight casing.

She looked out on the glittering swirl of London’s most beautiful people, her stomach twitching in anticipation. The ballroom was awash with colors and scents, by now familiar after the triumph of her first Season. She knew what to expect, whom to greet, and whom to cut. And somewhere in the crowd Mr. Alban waited, a proposal surely simmering on his tongue.

Almost immediately she was set upon by her usual pack of friends, and her mother drifted off. “Where have you been?” Lady Sophie’s fan snapped open and shut in agitation, though her eyes sparkled with mischief.

“Mr. Alban arrived nearly a half hour ago,” Rose supplied helpfully.

Clare fit a careful half smile to her face as she greeted her friends. Lady Sophie Durston always stood out like a dark hothouse flower amidst the crowd, though this evening she stood out more because of her vivid pink gown. Miss Rose Evans was a classic English beauty, blond and blue-eyed. Tonight she was dressed in virginal white—though Sophie had snidely confided to Clare just last week that perhaps Rose should avoid that color, and not only because it was a miserable complement to the girl’s too-pale complexion.

They were the young women all the men watched and the less fortunate girls envied. Together they had captured the hearts and imaginations of half the eligible men in the room. But since the start of this Season, Clare had been interested in only one of those hearts, and her friends knew it all too well.

She risked a veiled peek in Mr. Alban’s direction. He was speaking with Sophie’s father, a pompous windbag of an earl who had recently helped secure Parliament’s new ban on public meetings. Intended to hobble supporters of the growing Chartist movement, the news had been splashed across all the papers and bandied about polite Society in hushed, worried tones. She briefly wondered which side of the debate Alban claimed, though it was something she could never ask during the space of a waltz.

But as the overhead chandelier caught the white flash of his teeth, those distracting thoughts fell away. Oh, but he looked resplendent tonight in a dark jacket and emerald waistcoat, his chestnut hair gleaming. She could almost see him looking just so across a morning breakfast table, polished to a shine by her careful attentions, the Times spread out amicably between them. “Has Mr. Alban asked anyone to dance?” she asked, turning away from the heart-stopping sight of him so she could not be accused of mooning overlong.

“Not just yet,” Rose piped up from Sophie’s elbow, where she almost always hovered like a pale, blond shadow.

“He’s been speaking with Father since he arrived,” Sophie confirmed, her voice a low purr. “Business over pleasure, you know.”

Clare was relieved to hear he had not been busy with other girls’ dance cards, though she wasn’t worried. Mr. Alban had been remarkably persistent in asking her to dance the first waltz each evening. She harbored no doubts that this evening would go the same way.

As the musicians began to take their seats behind the screen of potted greenery that had been erected to hide them from view, a young man approached their group with the sort of enthusiasm usually displayed by unruly puppies—or, barring that, their eight-year-old owners.

“Good evening, Miss Westmore!”

Clare sighed, knowing she must acknowledge him. “Good evening, Mr. Meeks.”

He beamed at her, though she’d gifted him with the barest of greetings. “I was honored last week when you said you would grant me the first dance this evening.”

Clare gripped her dance card. Had she really done something so rash? He was a perfectly unthreatening specimen of a young man, but he was also one of the gentlemen Mother had encouraged far too enthusiastically last year. Still, Clare was predisposed to be kind. He meant well, even if he didn’t make her heart stir with anything other sympathy.

And she liked to think she would have honored her agreement to dance with the young man, had things been different. But the conversation with Meeks had occurred one week and one turned ankle ago. She could scarcely be expected to honor such a promise given her current circumstances.

“I am afraid you must have misunderstood.” She shook her head, knowing her ankle was unlikely to last more than a dance or two. “I am otherwise engaged.”

He deflated before her eyes. “Oh. I see.” His feet shuffled as he turned to Sophie and Rose, a nervous sheen on his high forehead. “Perhaps, then, if either of you are free?”

Sophie shook her head in mock regret. “I am afraid you are far too tardy in asking, Mr. Meeks. Our cards are already full.” She pointed her fan toward a line of restless young ladies sitting against the far wall of the ballroom. “You might aim your sights over there. I feel sure someone in the wallflower line will still have a few open spots remaining for a gentleman of your punctuality.”

Mr. Meeks’s cheeks flared with color as Rose tittered behind a gloved hand. As he turned away and began to trudge toward the wallflower line, Clare sighed. “Honestly, Sophie, was it necessary to be so cruel? He’s done naught to earn our ire.”

“Oh, don’t look so glum,” Sophie chided. She flicked her fan open and fluttered it lazily below her green eyes. “Truly, the occasional set-down is the best thing all around for him. Have you forgotten about that debacle last year, when he had the gall to think you might consider his proposal?” The air rang with her light laughter. “It isn’t as though he should harbor hopes for anything beyond the occasional dance where we are concerned.”

Clare held her tongue. It was true she had set her sights higher than a proposal from Meeks, but that did not mean she thought it was all right to snub him. There were some in the crowd who thought she should have accepted his proposal, her mother among them. After all, Mr. Meeks had an annual income of two thousand pounds and would one day be a viscount, the same title as her own father. There was potential there, to be sure.

But Sophie had decided, based on some unfathomable criteria only she knew, that Mr. Meeks was not within their sphere.

In contrast, though he was only the heir presumptive to a dukedom, Mr. Alban had been immediately welcomed into Sophie’s circle. Of course, he was handsome as sin, something Mr. Meeks had no hope of claiming. Furthermore, the elderly Duke of Harrington was clearly consumptive, and, rumor had it, none too interested in females, so Alban was as good as the heir apparent in many eyes.

Still, it frightened Clare sometimes to see how unpredictable the tide of public opinion could be. Next year Lucy would be out among this harsh crowd, and in a few short years Geoffrey would also be navigating this same social gauntlet. She didn’t like to think that her siblings—embarrassing though they may be—might be similarly sized up and dismissed.

So tonight she offered her friends nothing more questionable than an agreeable nod. Because being included in Sophie’s gilded circle was far better than being shoved outside it, and she’d worked too hard to get here to ruin it tonight in a fit of misplaced kindness.

As the opening strains of the first set of the evening rang out, Sophie’s lips curved upward. “Not that I would ever question your desire to wait for a better offer than was afforded by Mr. Meeks, but you’ve just arrived.”

“Yes,” Rose added, suspicion adding a half octave to her voice. “What was that nonsense about being otherwise engaged? You can’t have a single name on your dance card yet.”

“I … I might sit out the first set.” At their looks of horror, Clare tried to smile, though she suspected it came out more as a grimace. “I’m a little fatigued this evening. I might prefer to save my strength to dance with Mr. Alban.”

“You do look a trifle pale.” Sophie’s hand reached out to gently squeeze Clare’s arm. “Heavens, what are we thinking, chattering away like magpies when you look close to swooning? You need to sit down and rest.” She inclined her head toward the row of chairs she had earlier pointed out to Meeks. “There’s a prime seat, just there. Now, which dance were you hoping for from Alban? Maybe I can help hurry him along.”

Clare contemplated the vicious throbbing of her foot. The wallflower line was the furthest thing from a refuge, but it was also becoming increasingly obvious her ankle would be unlikely to tolerate more than a turn or two around the dance floor. “I think I should be recovered by the first waltz of the evening,” she replied, eyeing the empty chair as if it might have teeth. “If you speak with Mr. Alban, you might offer him such a hint.”

Sophie’s smile deepened as her own partner arrived to collect her for the first dance. “Of course,” she tossed over one shoulder, already gliding toward the dance floor. “You know I would do anything for a friend.”

***

Death was rarely—if ever—a laughing matter.

Pity, that.

Daniel supposed it took a man with a sense of humor to prefer to stay with a decomposing corpse and a room full of eager young medical students rather than attend a ball. Still, he had promised Lady Austerley he would come tonight, and a promise made to a lonely, ailing countess was one you oughtn’t break, unless the death you contemplated was your own.

Newly scrubbed and dressed in his best jacket, he greeted the dowager countess with a clinical eye, noting the pale fragility of her skin and the way her hands shook slightly through her gloves. Though the overhead chandeliers blazed with light, her pupils were dilated, providing some reassuring evidence the atropine he had given her earlier was still working.

“You look well tonight,” Daniel lied, lifting her hand to his lips. “I see you have chosen to partially heed my advice and greet your guests while seated. Still, I would be negligent in my duties if I did not advise you that lying down would be the preferred course of action.”

Lady Austerley’s lips twitched. “If I were forty years younger I would blush to hear such a thing from a handsome gentleman, Dr. Merial.” She squeezed his hand. “Now. You may have come out of medical necessity, but I very much hope you will enjoy yourself this evening, because I have no intention of embarrassing myself with anything so gauche as a fainting spell. Perhaps you would do me the honor of a dance later?”

Daniel smiled down at the older woman. “Of course,” he agreed, though they both knew the countess would not be dancing tonight, and probably never again.

As he moved on, searching for a space along the wall that would permit him a good view of his patient, he recognized a peer he had recently treated, a man whose various health woes he could catalog down to a resting heart rate. “Good evening, Lord Hastings,” Daniel nodded.

The gentleman stiffened and turned away. For a moment Daniel was perplexed. Had he been incorrect in his address? Somehow rude in his delivery? But then he overheard another person greet the man, and he knew he’d had the right of it.

Ah, so that’s how it was going to be.

When he was summoned to their homes to deal with a medical complaint, he was greeted with the sort of desperation reserved of a savior. But let him step among their ranks with an invitation in his pocket, and such niceties were lost.

The ladies in attendance, however, were a decidedly different story. Several among the painted and perfumed crowd ducked their heads behind their fans, then came back for a second, surreptitious look. Daniel had been in London only six months now, but already he understood why these women—women who had husbands and wealth and boredom to burn—looked at him with hooded eyes, fluttering fans, and undisguised interest. It was not comfort they were seeking.

He was young. He was handsome. He was here.

And those were apparently the only criteria to be considered.

He’d sidestepped their bold offers until now, but perhaps he’d been going about this all wrong, courting the male heads of these households in his bid to win more clients. He didn’t doubt he could leave tonight with several new female patrons, if he applied a modicum of charm.

Or—given the way several smiled invitingly—an eager new bed partner or two.

Though he was tempted to test this theory by smiling back at them, Daniel aimed for the east side of the ballroom instead, where the crowd opened up and a row of chairs lined the wall. As he threaded his way there, he realized that Lady Austerley had been right to be concerned she might suffer one of her increasingly frequent dizzy spells tonight. The heat from the overhead chandeliers was stifling, and the mingling scents of beeswax and floral perfume made his own stomach feel off-kilter.

Worse, however, was the noise. All around him nonsensical conversations swirled like eddies of dust caught in the wind. This blond-haired chit felt another’s gown was a simply awful shade of puce. That one shuddered to hear such a third-rate cellist sawing on the strings. One graying matron loudly bemoaned the fact the heads had been left on the prawns, no doubt to mock those guests possessed of more delicate sensibilities.

Though on the surface everyone was smiling, the undercurrent of female malcontent caught him by surprise. He could not help but feel there was something unhealthy about smiling to one’s hostess in one moment and disparaging her in the next. Hadn’t they come here tonight to honor the dowager countess, who, in her day, had been a widely admired figure? Though he knew she preferred to keep the details of her diagnosis private, anyone with a pair of functioning eyes could see the signs of the countess’s declining health and realize this was Lady Austerley’s last annual ball.

He wedged himself against a wall and scowled out at the crowd. Though it was difficult to credit the emotion, given that he was at a bloody ball, boredom began to creep in. Lady Austerley, bless her bones, was holding her own from her chair near the entrance to the ballroom, and looked to require no immediate assistance. He had no desire to dance, and refused to consider the horrors of puce or prawns, one way or the other.

Indeed, he had no desire to sample any of the diversions on offer here tonight.

Step, thump. Step, thump.

A sound cut through the drivel of small talk, and Daniel turned his head to search for its source. In the midst of such glitter and polish, that incongruous sound seemed his greatest hope to encounter something more thought-provoking tonight than third-rate cellists. He suffered an almost irrational disappointment to see nothing more interesting than a young lady approaching. A brunette, slim, and exceptionally attractive young lady, to be sure, but really no different than any of the other tittering flora and fauna on display tonight.

Step, thump. Step, thump.

Well, except for that.

His clinical skills flared to life. A few inches over five feet, but probably less than seven stone. She was within a year or two of twenty, though on which side she fell was little more than an educated guess. He had always been an ardent student of the human form, favoring symmetry over chaos, and his eye was drawn as much to the finely wrought curve of this girl’s bones as the rich brown hair piled on top of her head. Her neck alone was an anatomist’s dream, long and elegant, drawing the eye to the prominent line of her shoulders.

She flashed a half smile at someone who passed and he caught a glimpse of not-quite-perfect teeth, though the minor misalignment of her left cuspid did little to lessen the impression of general loveliness. If anything, it heightened his sense that she was real, rather than a porcelain doll waiting to be broken.

His eyes lingered a moment on the stark prominence of her clavicles, there above her neckline. She could stand to gain a few pounds, he supposed.

Then again, couldn’t they all?

Step, thump. Step, thump.

That part was deucedly odd. She didn’t appear outwardly lame, though her shuffling gait lacked the smooth refinement he expected in young ladies of the fashionable set. She settled herself into an empty seat along the wall and carefully arranged her skirts, but not before he caught the edge of one hideously ugly shoe, peeking out from beneath the hem of her gown.

Now that she was sitting still, her symptoms told him a far different story than the one delivered by her fixed half smile. Her gloved hands sat on her lap, the picture of feminine innocence, but as he watched, they knotted and unknotted in the shimmering green of her skirts, seeking traction against some unseen force. Her forehead was creased in concentration, and beads of perspiration had formed above her upper lip.

He well knew the signs. Either the chit was constipated or in severe pain.

He was betting on the latter.

And just like that the evening’s entertainment shifted toward something far more promising than Lady Austerley’s staunch refusal to faint.

Or even, God help him, the corpse.

 

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