Stud Club Trilogy, Book 1
“An engaging love story with strong, believable characters. I can’t wait to read the sequels!”
~Mary Balogh, New York Times bestselling author
A handsome and reclusive horse breeder, Spencer Dumarque, the fourth Duke of Morland, is a member of the exclusive Stud Club, an organization so select it has only ten members — yet membership is attainable to anyone with luck. And Spencer has plenty of it, along with an obsession with a prize horse, a dark secret, and, now, a reputation as the dashing “Duke of Midnight.” Each evening he selects one lady for a breathtaking midnight waltz. But none of the women catch his interest, and nobody ever bests the duke—until Lady Amelia d’Orsay tries her luck.
In a moment of desperation, the unconventional beauty claims the duke’s dance and unwittingly steals his heart. When Amelia demands that Spencer forgive her scapegrace brother’s debts, she never imagines that her game of wits and words will lead to breathless passion and a steamy proposal. Still, Spencer is a man of mystery, perhaps connected to the shocking murder of the Stud Club’s founder. Will Amelia lose her heart in this reckless wager or win everlasting love?
Winner, 2010 RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice Award, Best Regency-Set Historical
“This standout Regency romance, the first in Dare’s Stud Club trilogy, matches an unlikely heroine with an arrogant, secretive duke… Amelia’s imperfections endear her to both the reader and her husband, while Spencer’s complexity of character sets him well beyond the typical aristocrat and a little bit of a murder mystery adds the perfect finishing touch.”
~Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
“Dare’s first book in The Stud Club trilogy enhances her reputation for great stories, three-dimensional characters, passion and poignancy… Once again, Dare raises the bar for excellence in historical romance.”
~Top Pick!, RT Book Reviews
“A sharp-witted and sharp-tongued heroine matches wits and romantic wiles with a sinfully sexy hero.”
~John Charles, ChicagoTribune.com
“I loved watching Amelia and Spencer’s relationship form into an everlasting, believable love story… I enjoyed many laughs at their banter, but my heartstrings were tugged as they both had to struggle to learn to love and accept each other, flaws and all. This is one of the few stories that I hated to see come to an end.”
~5/5 Stars, Night Owl Reviews
“Tessa Dare is a gifted writer and has plotted a story that is totally unique. I completely enjoyed both Amelia and Spencer.”
London, June 1817
Biting the inside of her cheek, Amelia d’Orsay suppressed a small cry of jubilation. Even at a rout like this one, a well-bred lady’s abrupt shout of joy was likely to draw notice, and Amelia did not care to explain herself to the crush of young ladies surrounding her. Especially when the reason for her delight was not a triumph at the card table or a proposal of marriage, but rather the completion of a dinner menu.
She could imagine it now. “Oh, Lady Amelia,” one of these young misses would say, “only you could think of food at a time like this.”
Well, it wasn’t as though Amelia had planned to stand in a ballroom, dreaming of menus for their family summer holiday. But she’d been puzzling for weeks over a new sauce for braised pheasant, to replace the same old applejack reduction. Something sweet, yet tart; surprising, yet familiar; inventive, yet frugal. At last, the answer had come to her. Blackberry glaze. Strained, of course. Ooh, perhaps mulled with cloves.
Resolving to enter it in her menu book later, she swept the imaginary dish aside and compressed her grin to a half-smile. Summer at Briarbank would now officially be perfect.
Mrs. Bunscombe brushed past in a flounce of scarlet silk. “It’s half eleven,” the hostess sang. “Nearly midnight.”
Nearly midnight. Now there was a thought to quell her exuberance.
A cherub-faced debutante swaddled in tulle grasped Amelia by the wrist. “Any moment now. How can you remain so calm? If he chooses me tonight, I just know I’ll swoon.”
Amelia sighed. And so it began. As it did at every ball, when half-eleven ticked past.
“You needn’t worry about making conversation,” a young lady dressed in green satin said. “He scarcely utters so much as a word.”
“Are we even certain he speaks English? Wasn’t he raised in Abyssinia or…”
“No, no. Lower Canada. Of course he speaks English. My brother plays cards with him.” The second girl lowered her voice. “But there is something rather primitive about him, don’t you think? I think it’s the way he moves.”
“I think it’s the gossip you’re heeding,” Amelia said sensibly.
“He waltzes like a dream,” a third girl put in. “When I danced with him, my feet scarcely skimmed the floor. And he’s ever so handsome up close.”
Amelia gave her a patient smile. “Indeed?”
At the opening of the season, the reclusive and obscenely wealthy Duke of Morland had finally entered society. A few weeks later, he had all London dancing to his tune. The duke arrived at every ball at the stroke of midnight. He selected a single partner from among the available ladies. At the conclusion of one set, he would escort the lady into supper, and then…disappear.
Before two weeks were out, the papers had dubbed him “the Duke of Midnight,” and every hostess in London was jostling to invite His Grace to a ball. Unmarried ladies would not dream of promising the supper set to any other partner, for fear of missing their chance at a duke. To amplify the dramatic effect, hostesses positioned timepieces in full view, and instructed orchestras to begin the set at the very hour of twelve. And it went without saying, the set concluded with a slow, romantic waltz.
The nightly spectacle held the entire ton in delicious, knuckle-gnawing thrall. At every ball, the atmosphere thickened with perfume and speculation as the hour of twelve approached. It was like watching medieval knights attempting to wrest Excalibur from the stone. Surely one of these evenings, the gossips declared, some blushing ingénue would get a proper grip on the recalcitrant bachelor…and a legend would be born.
Legend indeed. There was no end of stories about him. Where a man of his rank and fortune were involved, there were always stories.
“I hear he was raised barefoot and heathen in the Canadian wilderness,” said the first girl.
“I hear he was barely civilized when his uncle took him in,” said the second. “And his wild behavior gave the old duke an apoplexy.”
The lady in green murmured, “My brother told me there was an incident, at Eton. Some sort of scrape or brawl… I don’t know precisely. But a boy nearly died, and Morland was expelled for it. If they sent down a duke’s heir, you know it must have been dreadful.”
“You’ll not believe what I’ve heard,” Amelia said, widening her eyes. The ladies perked, leaning in close. “I hear,” she whispered, “that by the light of the full moon, His Grace transforms into a ravening hedgehog.”
When her companions finished laughing, she said aloud, “Really, I can’t believe he’s so interesting as to merit this much attention.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d danced with him.”
Amelia shook her head. She had watched this scene unfold time and again over the past few weeks, admittedly with amusement. But she never expected—or desired—to be at the center of it. It wasn’t sour grapes, truly it wasn’t. What other ladies saw as intriguing and romantic, she took for self-indulgent melodrama. Really, an unmarried, wealthy, handsome duke who felt the need to command more female attention? He must be the most vain, insufferable sort of man.
And the ladies of his choosing—all flouncy, insipid girls in their first or second seasons. All petite, all pretty. None of them anything like Amelia.
Oh, perhaps there was a hint of bitterness to it, after all.
Really, when a lady dangled on the outer cusp of marital eligibility, as she did, society ought to allow her a quiet, unannounced slide into spinsterhood. It rather galled her, to feel several years’ worth of rejection revisited upon her night after night, as the infamous duke entered at the stroke of midnight, and at twelve-oh-one his eyes slid straight past her to some primping chit with more beauty than brains.
Not that he had reason to notice her. Her dowry barely scraped the floorboards of the “respectable” range, and even in her first season, she’d never been a great beauty. Her eyes were a trifle too pale, and she blushed much too easily. And at the age of six-and-twenty, she’d come to accept that she would always be a little too plump.
The girls suddenly scattered, like the flighty things they were.
A deep whisper came from behind her shoulder. “You look ravishing, Amelia.”
Sighing, she wheeled to face the speaker. “Jack. What is it you’re after?”
Pressing a hand to his lapel, he pulled an offended expression. “Must I be after something? Can’t a fellow pay his dearest sister a compliment without falling under suspicion?”
“Not when the fellow in question is you. And it’s no compliment to be called your dearest sister. I’m your only sister. If you’re after my purse, you must come up with something better than that.” She spoke in a light, teasing tone, hoping against all previous evidence that he would protest: No, Amelia. This time, I’m not after your purse. I’ve ceased gambling and drinking, and I’ve thrown over those ne’er-do-well “friends” of mine. I’m returning to University. I’ll take orders in the Church, just as I promised our dying mother. And you truly do look lovely tonight.
Eyes flicking toward the crowd, he lowered his voice. “A few bob. That’s all I need.”
Her chest deflated. Not even midnight, and already his eyes held that wild, liquor-flared spark that indicated he was on the verge of doing something spectacularly ill-conceived.
Steering him by the elbow, she left the young ladies to titter amongst themselves and guided her brother through the nearest set of doors. They stepped into the crescent of yellow light shining through the transom window. The night air closed around them, cloying and humid.
“I don’t have anything,” she lied.
“A few shillings for the hack, Amelia.” He grabbed for the reticule dangling from her wrist. “We’re off to the theater, a gang of us.”
Off to the theater, her eye. Off to the gaming hells, more likely. She clutched the beaded drawstring pouch to her bosom. “And how will I get home, then?”
“Why, Morland will take you.” He winked. “Right after your dance. I’ve two pounds sterling on you tonight.”
Wonderful. Another two pounds she’d have to siphon from her pin money. “At tremendously long odds, I’m sure.”
“Don’t speak like that.” A touch grazed her arm. Jack’s expression was suddenly, unexpectedly sincere. “He’d be damned lucky to have you, Amelia. There’s no lady your equal in that room.”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Since their brother Hugh’s death at Waterloo, Jack had changed, and not for the better. But in rare flashes, that dear, sensitive brother she loved would surface. She wanted so desperately to gather him close and hold tight to him for weeks, months…however long it took, to coax the old Jack out from this brittle shell.
“Come now. Be a sweet sister, and lend me a crown or two. I’ll send a runner to Laurent’s, and he’ll send that garish new landau for you. You’ll be driven home in the finest style his copper heiress can afford.”
“Her name is Winifred. She’s the Countess of Beauvale now, and you ought to speak of her with respect. It’s her fortune that purchased Michael’s commission and supports young William at school. It’s thanks to her and Laurent that I even have a home.”
“And I’m the worthless ingrate who brings the family nothing but disgrace. I know, I know.” His flinty gaze clashed with a forced smile. “It’s worth a few coins to be rid of me, isn’t it?”
“Can’t you understand? I don’t want to be rid of you at all. I love you, you fool.” She smoothed that incorrigible wisp of hair that always curled at his left temple. “Won’t you let me help you, Jack?”
“Of course. If you’ll start with a shilling or two.”
With clumsy fingers, she loosened the strings of her reticule. “I will give you everything I have, on one condition.”
“You must promise me you’ll join us this summer, at Briarbank.”
The d’Orsays always summered at Briarbank—a rambling stone cottage overlooking the River Wye, down the slope from the ruins of Beauvale Castle. Amelia had been planning this summer’s holiday for months, down to the last damask tablecloth and saucer of currant jelly. Briarbank was the answer to everything, she knew it. It had to be.
Hugh’s death had devastated the entire family, but Jack most of all. Of all her brothers, the two of them had been the fastest friends. Hugh had been just one year older, but several years wiser, and his serious bent had always balanced Jack’s wilder personality. Without that check on his impulsive nature, Amelia feared Jack’s grief and recklessness were conspiring to disaster.
What he needed was love, and time to heal. Time spent far from Town, and close to home and family—what remained of both. Here in London, Jack was surrounded by temptation, constantly pressured to keep pace with his spendthrift peers. At Briarbank, he would surely return to his good-humored self. Young William would come on his break from school. Michael would still be at sea, of course, but Laurent and Winifred would join them, at least for a week or two.
And Amelia would be the perfect hostess. Just as Mama had always been. She would fill every room with great vases of snapdragons, arrange theatricals and parlor games, serve braised pheasant with blackberry glaze.
She would make everyone happy, by sheer force of will. Or bribery, if she must.
“I’ve a crown and three shillings here,” she said, extracting the coins from the pouch, “and six pounds more saved at home.” Saved, scrimped, scraped together, one penny at a time. “It’s yours, all of it—but you must promise me August at Briarbank.”
Jack tsked. “He didn’t tell you?”
“Who? Who didn’t tell me what?”
“We’re not opening the cottage this summer. It was just settled this week. We’re letting it out.”
“Letting it out?” Amelia felt as though all the blood had been let from her veins. Suddenly dizzy, she clutched her brother’s arm. “Briarbank, let out? To strangers?”
“Well, not to strangers. We’ve put the word around at the clubs and expect inquiries from several good families. It’s a plum holiday cottage, you know.”
“Yes,” she bit out. “Yes, I do know. It’s so ideal, the d’Orsay family has summered there for centuries. Centuries, Jack. Why would we dream of leasing it out?”
“Haven’t we outgrown the pall-mall and tea biscuits routine? It’s dull as tombs out there. Halfway to Ireland, for God’s sake.”
“Dull? What on earth can you mean? You used to live for summers there, angling on the river and—” Comprehension struck, numbing her to the toes. “Oh, no.” She dug her fingers into his arm. “How much did you lose? How much do you owe?”
His eyes told her he’d resigned all pretense. “Four hundred pounds.”
“Four hundred! To whom?”
“The Duke of Midni—” Amelia bit off the absurd nickname. She refused to puff the man’s notoriety further. “But he’s not even arrived yet. How did you manage to lose four hundred pounds to him, when he’s not even here?”
“Not tonight. Days ago now. That’s why I must leave. He’ll be here any moment, and I can’t face him until I’ve made good on the debt.”
Amelia could only stare at him.
“Don’t look at me like that, I can’t bear it. I was holding my own until Faraday put his token in play. That’s what brought Morland to the table, drove the betting sky-high. He’s out to gather all ten, you know.”
“All ten of what? All ten tokens?”
“Yes, of course. The tokens are everything.” Jack made an expansive gesture. “Come now, you can’t be so out of circulation as that. It’s only the most elite gentlemen’s club in London.”
When she only blinked at him, he prompted, “Harcliffe. Osiris. One stud horse, ten brass tokens. You’ve heard of the club, I know you have.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You seem to be telling me you’ve wagered our ancestral home against a brass token. And lost.”
“I was in for hundreds already; I couldn’t back down. And my cards…Amelia, I swear to you, they were unbeatable cards.”
“Except that they weren’t.”
He gave a fatalistic shrug. “What’s done is done. If I had some other means of raising the funds, I would. I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but there’s always next year.”
“Yes, but—” But next year was a whole year away. God only knew what trouble would find Jack in the meantime. “There must be another way. Ask Laurent for the money.”
“You know he can’t give it.”
Of course he was right. Their eldest brother had married prudently, almost sacrificially. The family had been desperate for funds at the time, and Winifred had come with bags of money from her mining magnate father. The trouble was, the bags of money came cinched tightly with strings, and only Laurent’s father-in-law could loosen them. The old man would never authorize the use of four hundred pounds to pay off a gaming debt.
“I have to leave before Morland arrives,” he said. “You understand.”
Jack unlooped the reticule from her limp wrist, and she did not fight him as he shook the coins into his palm. Yes, she understood. Even if nothing remained of their fortune, the d’Orsays would cling to their pride.
“Have you at least learned your lesson now?” she said quietly.
He vaulted the low terrace rail. Rattling the coins in his palm, he backed away into the garden. “You know me, Amelia. I never was any good with lessons. I just copied my slate from Hugh’s.”
As she watched her brother disappear into the shadows, Amelia hugged her arms across her chest.
What cruel turn of events was this? Briarbank, rented for the summer! All the happiness stored up in those cobbled floors and rustic hearths and bundles of lavender hanging from the rafters—wasted on strangers. All her elaborate menus and planned excursions, for naught. Without that cottage, the d’Orsay family had no true center. Her brother had nowhere to recover from his grief.
And somehow more lowering than all this: She had no place of her own.
Accepting spinsterhood had not been easy for Amelia. But she could resign herself to the loneliness and disappointment, she told herself, so long as she had summers at that drafty stone cottage. Those few months made the rest of the year tolerable. Whilst her friends collected lace and linens for their trousseaux, Amelia contented herself by embroidering seat covers for Briarbank. As they entertained callers, she entertained thoughts of begonias in the window box. When she—an intelligent, thoughtful, well-bred lady—was thrown over nightly for her younger, prettier, lack-witted counterparts, she could fool herself into happiness by thinking of blackberry glaze.
Lord, the irony. She wasn’t much different from Jack. She’d impulsively wagered all her dreams on a pile of mortar and shale. And now she’d lost.
Alone on the terrace, she started to tremble. Destiny clanged against her hopes, beating them down one hollow ring at a time.
Somewhere inside, a clock was tolling midnight.
“His Grace, the Duke of Morland.”
The majordomo’s announcement coincided with the final, booming stroke of twelve.
From the head of the staircase, Spencer watched the throng of guests divide on cue, falling to either side like two halves of an overripe peach. And there, in the center, clustered the unmarried young ladies in attendance—stone-still and shriveling under his gaze.
As a general point, Spencer disliked crowds. He particularly disliked over-dressed, self-important crowds. And this scene grew more absurd by the night: the cream of London society, staring up at him with unguarded fascination.
We don’t know what to make of you, those stares said.
Fair enough. It was a useful—often lucrative—thing, to be unreadable. He’d spent years cultivating the skill.
We don’t trust you. This he gleaned from the whispers, and the manner in which gentlemen guarded the walls and ladies’ hands instinctively went to the jewels at their throats. No matter. It also was a useful thing, at times, to be feared.
No, it was the last bit that had him quietly laughing. The silent plea that only rang louder every time he entered a ballroom.
Here, take one of our daughters.
God’s knees. Must he?
As he descended the travertine staircase, Spencer girded himself for yet another unpleasant half hour. Given his preference, he would retreat back to the country and never attend another ball in his life. But while he was temporarily residing in Town, he could not refuse all invitations. If he wished to see his ward Claudia well-married in a few years, he must pave the way for her eventual debut. And occasionally there were high-stakes card games to be found in the back rooms of these affairs, well away from the white-powdered matrons playing whist.
So he made his appearance, but strictly on his own terms. One set, no more. As little conversation as possible. And if the ton were determined to throw their sacrificial virgins at his feet…he would do the choosing.
He wanted a quiet one tonight.
Usually he favored them young and vapid, more interested in preening for the crowd than capturing his notice. Then at the Pryce-Foster ball, he’d had the extreme misfortune to engage the hand of one Miss Francine Waterford. Quite pretty, with a vivacious arch to her brow and plump, rosy lips. The thing was, those lips lost all their allure when she kept them in constant motion. She’d prattled on through the entire set. Worse, she’d expected responses. While most women eagerly supplied both sides of any conversation, Miss Waterford would not be satisfied with his repertoire of brusque nods and inarticulate clearings of the throat. He’d been forced to speak at least a dozen words to her, all told.
That was his reward for indulging aesthetic sensibilities. Enough with the pretty ones. For his partner tonight, he would select a meek, silent, wallflower of a girl. She needn’t be pretty, nor even passable. She need only be quiet.
As he approached the knot of young ladies, his eye settled on a slender reed of a girl standing on the fringe of the group, looking positively jaundiced in melon-colored satin. When he advanced toward her, she cowered into the shadow of her neighbor. She refused to even meet his gaze. Perfect.
Just as he extended his hand in invitation, he was arrested by a series of unexpected sounds. The rattle of glass panes. The slam of a door. Heels clicking against travertine in a brisk, staccato rhythm.
Spencer swiveled instinctively. A youngish woman in blue careened across the floor like a billiard ball, reeling to a halt before him. His hand remained outstretched from his aborted invitation to Miss Melony Satin, and this newly-arrived lady took hold of it firmly.
Dipping in a shallow curtsy, she said, “Thank you, Your Grace. I would be honored.”
And after a stunned, painful pause, the music began.
The clump of disappointed ladies dispersed in search of new partners, grumbling as they went. And for the first time all season, Spencer found himself partnered with a lady not of his choosing. She had selected him.
How very surprising.
How very unpleasant.
Nevertheless, there was nothing to be done. The impertinent woman queued up across from him for the country dance. Did he even know this lady?
As the other dancers fell into place around them, he took the opportunity to study her. He found little to admire. Any measure of genteel poise she might claim had fallen casualty to that inelegant sprint across the ballroom. Stray wisps of hair floated about her face; her breath was labored with exertion. This state of agitation did her complexion no favors, but it did enhance the swell of her ample bosom. She was amply endowed everywhere, actually. Generous curves pulled against the blue silk of her gown.
“Forgive me,” he said, as they circled one another. “Have we been introduced?”
“Years ago, once. I would not expect you to remember. I am Lady Amelia d’Orsay.”
The pattern of the dance parted them, and Spencer had some moments to absorb this name: Lady Amelia d’Orsay. Her late father had been the seventh Earl of Beauvale. Her elder brother, Laurent, was currently the eighth Earl of Beauvale.
And her younger brother Jack was a scapegrace wastrel who owed Spencer four hundred pounds.
She must have sensed the moment of this epiphany, for when they next clasped hands she said, “We needn’t speak of it now. It can wait for the waltz.”
He quietly groaned. This was going to be a very long set. If only he’d moved more quickly in securing the jaundiced one’s hand. Now that Lady Amelia’s brash maneuver had been successful, God only knew what stunt the ladies—or more likely, their mothers—would attempt next. Maybe he should start engaging his partners’ hands in advance of the event. But that would necessitate social calls, and Spencer did not make social calls. Perhaps he could direct his secretary to send notes? The entire situation was wearying.
The country dance ended. The waltz began. And he was forced to take her in his arms, this woman who had just made his life a great deal more complicated.
To her credit, she wasted no time with pleasantries. “Your Grace, let me be to the point. My brother owes you a great sum of money.”
“He owes me four hundred pounds.”
“Do you not view that as a great sum of money?”
“I view it as a debt which I am owed. The precise amount is inconsequential.”
“It is not inconsequential to me. I cannot imagine that you are unaware of it, but the d’Orsay name is synonymous with noble poverty. For us, four hundred pounds is a vast sum of money. We simply cannot spare it.”
“And what do you propose? Do you mean to offer me favors in lieu of payment?” He repaid her shocked expression with a cool remark: “I’m not interested.”
It was a small lie. He was a man. And she was a buxom woman, poured into a form-fitting dress. Parts of him were finding parts of her vaguely interesting. His eyes, for example, kept straying to her décolletage, so snugly framed by blue silk and ivory lace. From his advantage of height, he could spy the dark freckle dotting the inner curve of her left breast, and time and again, he found his gaze straying to the small imperfection.
“What a revolting suggestion,” she said. “Do you routinely solicit such offers from the distraught female relations of your debtors?”
He gave a noncommittal shrug. He didn’t, but she was free to believe he did. Spencer was not in the habit of ingratiating himself, with anyone.
“As if I would barter my favors for four hundred pounds.”
“I thought you called it a vast sum of money.” Well above the going rate for such services, he refrained from adding.
“There are some things upon which one cannot put a price.”
He considered making an academic argument to the contrary, but decided against it. Clearly the woman lacked the sense to follow logic. As was further evidenced by her next comment.
“I ask you to forgive Jack’s debt.”
“You cannot refuse!”
“I just did.”
“Four hundred pounds is nothing to you. Come now, you weren’t even after Jack’s money. He was only caught in the middle as you drove the betting high. You wanted Mr. Faraday’s token, and you have it. Let my brother’s wager be set aside.”
She huffed an impatient breath, and her whole body seemed to exhale in exasperation. Frustration exuded from her every pore, and with it wafted her own unique feminine scent. She smelled nice, actually. No cloying perfume—he supposed she couldn’t afford rich scent. Just the common aromas of plain soap and clean skin, and the merest suggestion that she tucked sprigs of lavender between her stored undergarments.
Blue eyes locked with his. “Why not?”
Spencer tempered his own exasperated sigh. He could explain to her that forgiving the debt would do both her brother and her family a great disservice. They would owe a debt of gratitude more lasting and burdensome than any debt of gold, impossible to repay. Worst, Jack would have no incentive to avoid repeating the mistake. In a matter of weeks, the youth would land in even deeper debt, perhaps to the tune of thousands. Spencer had no doubt that four hundred pounds was a large sum to the d’Orsay family, but it would not be a crippling one. And if it purchased Lady Amelia’s brother a greater portion of sense, it would be four hundred pounds well spent.
All this he might have explained. But he was the Duke of Morland. As much as he’d forfeited for the sake of that title, it ought to come with a few advantages. He shouldn’t have to explain himself at all.
“Because I won’t,” he said simply.
She set her teeth. “I see. And there is nothing I can say to persuade you otherwise?”
Lady Amelia shuddered. He felt the tremor beneath his palm, where his hand pressed against the small of her back. Fearing she might burst out weeping—and wouldn’t that be the final polish on this sterling example of awkwardness—Spencer pulled her tightly to him and whisked her into a series of turns.
Despite his efforts, she only trembled more violently. Small sounds, something between a hiccough and a squeak, emanated from her throat. Against his better judgment, he pulled back to study her face.
The woman was laughing.
His heart began to beat a little faster. Steady, man.
“It is true, what the ladies say. You do waltz like a dream.” Her eyes swept his face, catching on his brow, his jaw, and finally fixing on his mouth with unabashed interest. “And you are undeniably handsome, up close.”
“Do you hope to move me by means of flattery? It won’t work.”
“No, no.” She smiled, and her right cheek dimpled. The left did not. “I see now that you are a positively immutable gentleman, a veritable rock of determination, and my every attempt to move you would be in vain.”
“Why the laughter, then?”
Why the question? he berated himself, annoyed. Why not gratefully allow to the conversation to die? And why did he find himself wondering whether Lady Amelia’s left cheek ever dimpled? Whether she smiled more genuinely, more freely in situations that did not involve debasing herself over large debts, or whether the lone dimple was merely another of her intrinsic imperfections, like the unmatched freckle on her breast?
“Because,” she answered, “anxiety and gloom are tiresome. You’ve made it clear you will not forgive the debt. I can pass the remainder of the set moping about it, or I can enjoy myself.”
“The notion shocks you, I see. I know there are some”—here she raked him with a sharp glance—“who judge it mark of their superiority to always appear dissatisfied with the available company. Before they even enter a gathering, they have made up their minds to be displeased with it. Is it so very unthinkable that I might choose the reverse? Opt for happiness, even in the face of grave personal disappointment and complete financial ruin?”
“It smacks of insincerity.”
“Insincerity?” She laughed again. “Forgive me, but are you not the Duke of Morland? The playwright of this little midnight melodrama that has played to packed houses for weeks? The entire scene is predicated on the assumption that we eligible ladies are positively desperate to catch your attention. That a dance in the Duke of Midnight’s arms is every girl’s fondest fantasy. And now you call me insincere, when I claim to be enjoying my turn?”
She lifted her chin and looked out over the ballroom. “I have no illusions about myself. I’m an impoverished gentlewoman, two seasons on the shelf, no great beauty even in my bloom of youth. I’m not often at the center of attention, Your Grace. When this waltz concludes, I don’t know when—if ever—I shall know the feeling again. So I’m determined to enjoy it while it lasts.” She smiled fiercely, defiantly. “And you can’t stop me.”
Spencer concluded this must now be the longest set in the history of dancing. Turning his head, he dutifully swept her the length of the floor, striving to ignore how every pair of eyes in the ballroom tracked their progress. Quite a crowd tonight.
When he risked a glance down at her, Lady Amelia’s face remained tilted to his.
“Can I persuade you to stop staring at me?”
Her smile never faltered. “Oh, no.”
Oh no, indeed.
“You see,” she whispered in a husky tone, that from any other woman he would have interpreted as sensual overture, “it’s not often a spinster like me has the opportunity to enjoy such a prime specimen of virility and vigor, and at such close proximity. Those piercing hazel eyes, and all that dark, curling hair… What a struggle it is, not to touch it.”
He shushed her. “You’re creating a scene.”
“Oh, you created the scene,” she murmured coyly. “I’m merely stealing it.”
Would this waltz never end?
“Did you wish to change the subject?” she asked. “Perhaps we should speak of the theater.”
“I don’t go to the theater.”
“Books, then. How about books?”
“Some other time,” he ground out. And instantly wondered what had possessed him to say that. The odd thing of it was, despite her many, many unpleasant attributes, Lady Amelia was clearly possessed of some intelligence and wit. He could not help but think that in another time, in another place, he might have enjoyed discussing books with her. But he couldn’t possibly do so here, in a crowded ballroom, with his concentration unraveling on each successive twirl.
His control of the scene was slipping.
And that made him frown.
“Ooh, that’s a dangerous glare,” she said. “And your face is turning a most impressive shade of red. It’s enough to make me believe all those dreadful rumors about you. Why, you’re actually raising the hairs on my neck.”
“I am all honesty,” she protested. “See for yourself.” She stretched up and tilted her head to the side, elongating the smooth, pale column of her neck. No freckles there. Only an enticing curve of creamy, soft-looking, sweet-smelling female skin.
Now Spencer’s heart slammed against his ribs. He didn’t know which he yearned to do more. Wring that neck, or lick it. Biting it might be a fair compromise. An action that mingled pleasure with punishment.
Because she deserved to be punished, the impertinent minx. Accepting the futility of her first argument, she’d chosen to wage a different battle. A rebellion of joy. I may not wrest a penny from you, but I will wring every possible drop of enjoyment at your expense.
This was the very attitude responsible for her brother’s debt. Jack would not quit the card table, even when he had no hope of recouping his losses. He stayed in, risked hundreds he did not have, because he wanted to win one last hand. It was precisely the temperament one might expect from a family such as the d’Orsays—a lineage rich with centuries of pride and valor, perpetually strapped for gold.
Lady Amelia wanted to best him at something. She wanted to see him brought low. And through no particular skill or perception of her own, she was perilously close to succeeding.
Spencer came to an abrupt halt. Implausibly, the room kept spinning around him. Damn it, this couldn’t be happening. Not here, not now.
But the signs were unmistakable. His pulse pounded in his ears. A wave of heat swamped his body. The air was suddenly thick as treacle, and tasted just as vile.
Devil, damn, blast. He needed to leave this place, immediately.
“Why have we stopped?” she said. “The waltz isn’t over.” Her voice sounded as though it came from a great distance, filtered through cotton-wool.
“It’s over for me.” Spencer swung his gaze around the room. An open set of doors to his left beckoned promisingly. He attempted to release her, but she clutched at his shoulders and held him fast. “For God’s sake,” he said, “let me—”
“Let you what?” Her eyes darting to the side, she whispered, “Let you go? Let you abandon me here on the dance floor, to my complete and total humiliation? Of all the unchivalrous, ungentlemanly, unforgivable…” When she ran out of descriptors, she threw him an accusatory glare that implied a thousand more. “I won’t stand for it.”
“Very well, then. Don’t.”
He slid his hands to her waist, grasped tight with both hands, and bodily lifted Lady Amelia d’Orsay—two, four…six inches off the floor. Until they looked one another eye-to-eye, and her slippers dangled in mid-air.
He spared a brief moment to savor the way indignant shock widened those pale blue eyes.
And then he carried her out into the night.