Jonathan Faraday, the Marquis of Dansbury, looked up at the building before him and scowled. Depressingly respectable both inside and out, it stood in a section of London he rarely visited. And staying away from it this evening would have suited him perfectly well. He slid his gaze sideways to regard his mistress. "This is quite possibly the dimmest idea you've ever had."
"Nonsense," Lady Camilla Maguire soothed airily, though despite her carefree tone, she wore the wary expression of a handler facing an irritated lion. "Anyway, I won the cut of the cards. You promised we would spend the evening wherever I wished."
"When I allowed you to win, I assumed that your idea of an evening out would consist of Vauxhall Gardens, or one of Antonia's card parties." He leaned closer as he led their small party through the open double doors. "Or better yet, my bed chamber," he continued, breathing the words into her ear in a last attempt to change her mind.
"Stop it, you naughty thing," she chastised, her smile poorly disguising her annoyance at him.
"Whatever for? I had no idea you would be leading me straight to Hades."
"Jack, Almack's is not at all like Hades. Please behave." Camilla tugged at his arm to pull him into the coat room, her brown eyes regarding him with thinly veiled impatience from beneath a trained dishevelment of flaming red hair.
Jack raised an eyebrow at her. He had swiftly begun to weary of her narrow ambitions and predictable desires, as she had apparently tired of his sarcasm and pointed cynicism -- her obvious reason for the evening's sojourn. Even so, keeping her about was less troublesome than going to the effort of acquiring a new mistress yet again this Season. He'd lost count already, after barely a month in town. "I beg to differ," he returned in a determinedly amiable tone. "Almack's and Hades are barely distinguishable from one another. Damned souls wailing and swirling about, stacked to the ceiling and trapped for eternity."
Ernest Landon, the third member of their foursome, chuckled in his usual sycophantic manner as they entered the main room. "Well said, Dansbury. Damned wailing souls. Ha, ha."
Though it was the middle of June, London and the whole south of England remained locked in a midwinter chill. The blast of heat from the crowded, noisy assembly rooms should therefore have been welcome, but as the smell of sweat followed close behind the warmth, Jack found it more a confirmation of his analogy to hell. Promise or no promise, the sooner he could make his exit, the better.
"Please don't be so difficult, Jack," Camilla pleaded again. "It's proper society."
He nodded. "I know. Disgusting, isn't it?" Stodginess and Almack's had ever been fast friends, and as Jack looked about the room he could see no evidence tonight that the relationship had faltered. His presence had already elicited a few stares, which he returned in kind, and muttered comments, which he pretended to ignore. If he hadn't been titled, and feared, his scandalous little party would never have been allowed into the hallowed, foul-smelling halls.
Ogden Price took a silver box from his pocket and flipped it open. "You know, Dansbury, you might for once attempt to spend an evening in a socially acceptable manner," he said offhandedly, taking a pinch of snuff and inhaling. "It won't kill you, after all, and I doubt your reputation will be the least bit purified by the experience."
Jack began to reply, then stopped, his interest snared. Price cared for Almack's nearly as little as he did. It seemed at least two of his companions had ulterior motives for being in attendance this evening. He eyed his friend, noting the shifting of the gray eyes and the way the snuff box seemed to have become an inexplicably fascinating object. "Who is she, Price?" he asked smoothly, stepping closer to be heard over the strains of a boisterous country dance and a hundred wagging tongues.
The eyes flicked over to meet his, then dropped. "No one," Price returned too quickly, and snapped the box shut. "Simply a pretty face." The silver container disappeared back into his pocket. "One may admire, you know."
"Indeed, one may," Jack agreed easily, cheering considerably. If Ogden had found an objet d'interest, at least he could look forward to a bit of amusement before he fled back to the dark corners of London he preferred. "And does this admirably pretty face have a name?"
"Jack, dance with me," Camilla interrupted, sliding her arm around his, her warm closeness smothering in the sweltering room.
"No. I'm conversing with Price." Whether the evening ended with them parting company or not, he wished her well and Godspeed in her search for a less acerbic peer to keep her company. At the same time, he had no intention of looking the fool while she searched.
"I want to dance," Camilla insisted, rubbing her bosom against his arm.
The motion was more annoying than arousing. "A country dance? Not even your considerable charms, my dear, could entice me to step into that pit of hell."
She pouted, but didn't relinquish her grip. If the embrace hadn't been shockingly intimate for Almack's, he would have shrugged her off. Instead, he returned his attention to Price, intent on the hunt. "So, my boy--"
"Jack," she protested again.
"Come, Lady Maguire, I shall dance with you," Ernest offered with more astuteness than usual.
Camilla humphed and airily took Landon's hand. "At least there is one proper gentleman present tonight."
"Better Landon than me," Jack drawled, watching her departure.
Lady Maguire may have wanted a night in proper society, but she certainly hadn't dressed for it. Her burgundy and gray gown stood out bright as blood amid the wan flowers in the pallid assembly, and her deep curtsey served to reveal most of her charms to her dancing partner -- an effective advertisement for the services she offered.
Jack looked slyly at Price. Although he was reputed to be a dangerous man, over the past few months he had felt in greater danger of succumbing to boredom than to a duelist's ball. Tormenting Ogden would provide some diversion, at least. "To repeat -- who is your mysterious charmer, Price?"
"Leave off, Dansbury," Price returned, clearly irritated. "It's not worth the jest you'll make of it. And looking does not equate with desire, anyway. Admiring a woman is like admiring a statue; one may recognize a pleasing shape without wishing to make a purchase."
Jack lifted both eyebrows. "Now I am truly fascinated. I have not until this moment heard you utter the words pretty, admirable, and pleasing in conjunction with any single female. Do tell me her name."
With an annoyed glare, Price pointed at the noisy gaggle of young ladies gathered about the edges of the room and waiting, fans beating the air madly, to be asked out onto the dance floor. "Go bother the babes in the woods," he snapped.
"The fox prefers hens to chicks," Jack said, amused. Simpering, witless things they were, naive enough to think his reputation romantic, and stiff and awkward enough that they weren't worth pursuing. "You'll need a better distraction, I'm afraid. This year's crop doesn't show any more promise than last year's."
"For God's sake, Dansbury. Have mercy," Price sighed.
"Never. So, why don't you save us both the trouble of my wearing you down, and point her out to me?"
"She's not here." Price motioned to a footman laden with glasses of flavored ratafia. He took one, and handed a second to Jack. "I say, is that Lord Hunt over there? I thought him still in India."
Jack didn't bother looking. "He returned better than a week ago. I've already nicked him for nearly four hundred quid at hazard, and he still thinks he's having fun. Don't turn the subject. This chit is obviously the reason you joined our little jaunt into proper society, and the reason you refused to flee with me to Jezebel's Harem when the chance arose."
"No, she is not. You--"
"So, what's wrong with her?" Price was one of the few who at least made a show of standing up to him, and his uncharacteristic interest in a woman over a game of hazard was far too intriguing to let go of. "A squint, perhaps, or an ill-placed mole?" He grinned at Price's put-upon scowl. "A prominent birthmark, an insufficient bosom, a lisp, stooped shoulders, a bald sp--"
"Sweet Lucifer, Dansbury! Leave off!" With a look of inexpressible annoyance, Price jabbed a finger in the direction of the entryway. "There -- she's just arrived. Now have your amusement and be done with it."
Turning, Jack caught a glimpse of a white dress, and offered his friend a mock look of horror. "A debutante? For shame, Price, to become besotted with a young and inno . . ."
For the space of a dozen heartbeats, the clamorous country dance, the cackling laughter of Lady Pender behind him, the shuffle of dancers sliding across the slick floor, Almack's itself, simply ceased to exist. Emeralds, he thought silently. Her eyes were the color of emeralds. She stood in the doorway and glanced about the crowded assembly room, as though seeking a familiar face. And then, with a rousing shock nearly enough to rattle his teeth, the green, sparkling gaze caught his.
Jack drew a slow breath and stared back at her. Almost as if in a daze, both unwilling and unable to turn his eyes from hers, he took in the rest of her. Hair dark as blackest midnight had been pulled up into an intricate, fashionable tangle at the top of her head, while a few curling tendrils escaped to frame her high cheekbones. The ebony against the smooth cream of her skin was so striking it made her look almost sculpted, an artist's rendering of perfection. Her eyes, though, were bright, interested, and very alive. They held his with the same startled intensity he felt in himself. A slight, blushing rose touched her cheeks and a smile curved her lips -- and then the dancers obscured her from his gaze.
He blinked. "'Angels and ministers of grace defend us'," he murmured.
"Hamlet?" Price returned.
Jack jumped. "Beg pardon?"
"You were quoting Hamlet. You must be impressed."
"Ah." Jack resisted the urge to look in her direction again, and instead took a sip of peach ratafia. Thankfully it was truly awful. "Good God." He scowled and handed the glass to a footman. By the time he faced Price again his usual cynical expression was back in place, though anticipation and excitement ran hotly just under his skin like a fever. "It's merely that you had me imagining all sorts of horrors. I hadn't expected anything remotely . . . attractive. Who is she?" Unable to resist, he turned to find her again.
"I . . . ah--"
"You said you didn't wish to make a purchase." This keen, humming interest was quite unlike him, but it was impossible to ignore. As she looked in his direction again and then spoke to a young woman beside her, he knew she must have felt it, as well. If she possessed a beating heart and half a mind, she had felt something. "So, who is she?"
"The Ice Queen," came from beside him. Camilla returned to slide her arm around his. "Look at her. She's got half the lords in London after her. Nance has already proposed, they say."
Apparently no wealthy gentleman had been interested in Lady Maguire's considerable charms, and Jack frowned, finding her continuing presence annoying, now. He returned his attention to the girl. The crowd of gentlemen vying for a place on her dance card was rather large -- and most of them weren't particularly young, either.
Another line from Shakespeare -- something about a snowy dove trooping among crows -- crossed into his mind, but he sternly refrained from uttering it aloud. Perhaps he was suffering from a delirium brought on by the overheated room. Yet he was alert enough to note that the delicate flowered pattern running through her ivory gown was the exact emerald of her eyes, and that the ribbon in her black hair and the soft-soled slippers peeking out from beneath her long skirt were of the same rich color. And he was aware enough to know that he wanted to do more than simply look at her. Looking was for the other toads in the room. "Stuffy bunch of circling buzzards."
"What do you expect?" Camilla returned, breathing the words into his ear and infinitely more interested in his companionship now that he was looking at someone else. "Only the most respectable for Lilith Benton."
"That lets you out, doesn't it, Jack?" Ernest chuckled.
"Lilith Benton," Jack repeated softly. She and her companion, a tallish girl with blond, curly hair whom he vaguely remembered seeing last Season, stood speaking to their admirers and whispering together. "Who's the girl with her? Miss Something or other."
"Miss Sanford, I believe," Ernest offered.
"Yes, that's it." Jack nodded absently as he extricated his arm from Camilla's. "Excuse me for a moment. I believe I've done my duty by you for the evening, my dear."
Camilla snapped her fan shut with an angry crack, but knew better than to protest as he turned to make his way across the crowded floor.
No doubt Miss Benton was receiving an earful of frightful details about his character from her companion. Though he could hardly dispute them, neither was he feeling particularly monstrous this evening. A few smiles and compliments were generally enough to put even the most seasoned lady at ease, and a schoolroom chit would hardly take that much effort. And schoolroom chit or not, she was exquisite. He grinned to himself. Besides, Almack's stuffy patronesses would fall dead if he asked her for a waltz.
Jack ignored the two men standing directly behind her, obviously her father and a brother, and instead stopped directly before the girl's companion. "Miss Sanford." He smiled and gripped the young lady's fingers.
She stared at him, open-mouthed.
"How pleasant to see you again," he continued easily. Jack released her hand, and she snatched it back as though it had been scalded. "I was hoping you might introduce me to your lovely companion."
"Oh . . . I . . . you . . ." Miss Sanford stammered.
Jack settled his expression into a pleasant, harmless smile and waited. Although he could sense the girl beside him, he didn't want to look at her until he could speak to her and take her hand. He intensely wanted to touch her, could almost feel the heat coursing between them. He took a slow breath, welcoming the unaccustomed craving running along his veins.
"If you please, Miss Sanford," he cajoled.
"Yes, oh, yes," she finally managed, blushing a violent red. "Lil, the . . . um, the Marquis of Dansbury. My . . . my lord, Miss Benton."
Jack finally turned to look at her. She was smaller than he had realized at first, nearly a full foot shorter than he. Small-boned and slender, she was enchanting, with a bosom, though not so ample as Camilla's, that seemed to beg for poetry to be written in its honor. His gaze traveled upward, taking in every inch of her as if she truly were a piece of fine art. At her lips, he paused -- not just because they were full and red and he wanted to taste them, but because they were drawn in a firm, straight line completely at odds with the openly enticing look she had given him earlier.
"Miss Benton," he said, as his gaze reached her eyes. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance." He reached for her hand, but with a slight start she put them both behind her and took a step backward.
Her emerald eyes looked directly into his. "I am appreciative that in light of your quite . . . thorough perusal of my person, my lord, you have found me adequate to converse with. However, I have perused your reputation, and find you to be someone with whom I do not wish to be acquainted. Good evening." She turned her back and walked away to rejoin her admirers.
Jack stood where he was for a moment, flabbergasted surprise driving every other thought from his brain. The chit had actually cut him. Miss Sanford uttered something unintelligible, gave him a quick curtsey, and hurried away as well. The movement roused him, and he glanced down at his outstretched hand and slowly lowered it again.
His wild reputation generally made him a titillating guest for the more daring hostesses, on the rare occasions he attended their balls and soirees. Females might be wary of him if they had any sense, but never did they insult him to his face. The cut had certainly been seen; he could already hear the wave of quiet snickers and giggles going about the assembly room. Black anger and piqued frustration burned deep in his chest and down his veins to his clenched fingers. She'd felt the attraction between them, too; he knew it. And still, she claimed to have found him lacking. The damned chit was lying. And she had just cut the wrong man.
Jack stalked back to his cronies.
Price took one look at his face and began shaking his head. "She's a mere babe, Jack. Leave it be."
"Why do they call her the Ice Queen?" the marquis asked Camilla tightly.
She gave a slow smile. "Much as you like to keep up on things, I can't believe you haven't heard of her. Her mother was Elizabeth Benton, Viscountess Hamble." She raised a painted eyebrow at his dark, unchanged expression. "No? Shame on you, Jack. Lady Hamble's the one who took up with the Earl of Greyton, and ran off from her family six or seven years ago."
That explained his ignorance. "I was in France," he said. Camilla's smile faltered. "Continue."
"Jack," Price began again.
Landon snapped his fingers. "I remember. Greyton needed a bankroll to edge off the hawks -- near bankrupt, he was. Thought Lady Hamble was plump in the pockets, and won her off. Turned out everything was in her husband's name, though, and she hadn't a feather to fly with. He left her in Lincolnshire and married Lady Daphne Haver a week later. She's hare-lipped, but her papa was so pleased to get her off that he bought Greyton out of twig."
"Lord Hamble pulled the family out of London," Camilla took up the tale. "When she came begging back, he turned her away. She died a few months later of some illness or other, but he hasn't been back in town since. Now that the Ice Queen's come of age, she's out to restore the family's good name." She snickered. "And believe me, she's the one to do it -- little Miss Respectable."
Jack nodded and looked across the room again. She was waltzing with the Earl of Nance -- who danced in the same haphazard manner he played cards -- and Jack continued to watch the pair of them coolly for a few moments. She hadn't so much as glanced in his direction since the cut, and he wondered if she thought she had disposed of him. Her second mistake of the evening. "Is that her father who came in with her?"
Lady Maguire nodded. "And the other's her brother, William."
"He's the one I dunned for two hundred pounds at the Navy Club the other night," Landon supplied. "Boy doesn't know a damned thing about cards." He grinned. "I'm meeting him at Boodle's later."
"Jack," Price pleaded again, "for God's sake, d--"
"You said you weren't interested in making a purchase," Dansbury snapped. "Has that changed?"
"Well, no," Price hedged, "but you can't mean to--"
"Then leave off or go away," Jack continued blackly. He took a breath and forced a slight, dark smile. "I've a game in mind."
"I knew it," Landon chuckled. "She won't be respectable for long." He turned to Price. "One hundred quid says the Ice Queen'll be warming our Jack of Spades's bed by the end of the Season."
"That wee, small-breasted thing?" Camilla laughed gratingly. "Jack wouldn't bother. Besides, she doesn't want to be warmed. She hates mischief, and she's already worried that her brother's going astray in London." She tugged at Jack's sleeve. "Let's go," she cajoled. "You hate it here, anyway."
Jack's eyes flicked to the brother. The tall, tawny-haired boy looked fresh down from university, and from his expression was chomping at the bit to do something bold and reckless, but obviously had no idea to go about it.
"Astray and mischief are my specialties, my dear," he murmured, glancing at Miss Benton again and disengaging himself from Lady Maguire. "Perhaps I might lend a hand."
"Jack," she protested.
"Don't worry, Cam. Price will see you home." He made a mental note to send her a diamond-something in the morning to quell any inconvenient feelings of jealousy, and to keep her quiet until she found her next true love or until he'd concluded his revenge.
Jack could be very patient, and he had every intention of seeing to it that the Ice Queen was thoroughly melted by the end of the Season. Another line from Shakespeare crept into his thoughts, and he smiled grimly. "'Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war'," he intoned, then winked at Ernest. "I'll join you and young William Benton at Boodle's, I think."
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