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It still felt somewhat strange to be part of a gathering of the creme de la creme of English society again and to hear the English language spoken by virtually everyone. Not that the English were the only nationality present, it was true. There were also Dutch, Belgians, and Germans, among others. But the British predominated.
Gervase Ashford, Earl of Rosthorn, was standing just inside the ballroom doors at the house Viscount Cameron had leased on the Rue Ducale in Brussels, looking about him with considerable interest. He was searching for familiar faces. He had seen several since his recent arrival from Austria, but he expected to see more here. The vast majority of both ladies and gentlemen looked exceedingly young to him, though. He felt strangely ancient at thirty.
Most of those young gentlemen, and a few older ones too, wore military dress uniformssome blue or green, but most scarlet and resplendent with rich facings and multitudes of gold lace braiding. Like peacocks, they outshone the ladies in their pastel shaded, softly flowing, high-waisted gowns. But the ladies looked delicate and very feminine in contrast.
"One feels at a distinct disadvantage dressed even in one's very best civilian clothes, does one not?" the Honorable John Waldane said ruefully into Gervase's left earthe buzz of a hundred voices or more all raised to be heard above the rest of the hubbub plus the sounds of the orchestra tuning their instruments more than occupied his right.
"If one came here with the intention of impressing the ladies, yes, I suppose so," Gervase admitted with a chuckle. "If one came to be an invisible observer, no."
At the moment he preferred to be as unobtrusive as possible. He still felt a little self-conscious around British people, wondering how much they remembered from nine years ago, and wondering too just how much there was for them to remember. Although there had been a few rather public scenes, he was not sure how much of that whole sordid business had become public knowledge. Waldane, who had been one of Gervase's acquaintances at the time and who had hailed him with the greatest amiability when they ran into each other two days ago, had made no reference to it. But, of course, the reputation Gervase had earned since then was undeniably notorious to anyone who had spent time on the Continent.
"Old Boney will probably be captured any day now and dragged back to Elba and kept in irons for the rest of his life if any of his guards have a brain in their heads," Waldane said. "These officers will no longer have an excuse to play at such gallantry or to dazzle the ladies with such a gorgeous display."
"Jealous?" Gervase chuckled again.
"Mortally." Waldane, slightly more portly than he had been nine years ago when Gervase last saw him, and balding at the crown of his thinning fair hair, laughed ruefully. "There are some ladies one might enjoy impressing."
"Are there?" Gervase raised his quizzing glass the better to see to the far side of the crowded ballroom. He recognized Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Duke of Wellington's military secretary, in conversation with Lady Mebs, and Sir Charles Stuart, British ambassador to the Hague. But his attention moved obligingly onto the young ladies, none of whom he could be expected to recognizeor feel any particular interest in if he did. His tastes did not run to the very young. "By Jove, you are right."
His glass had paused on one member of Sir Charles's group, who was even then turning half away from its other members in order to greet the approach of two young officers of the Life Guards, gorgeous in dazzling white net pantaloons, scarlet coats, blue facings, and gold laceand dancing shoes instead of their cavalry boots.
She was a very young lady indeednot long out of the schoolroom if his guess was correct. He would not perhaps have noticed her if Waldane had not set him to the task. But, having looked, he was forced to admit that sometimes one could draw sheer pleasure from simply gazing at extraordinary beauty.
He was gazing at it now.
She was really quite outstandingly lovely, the more so perhaps because the simplicity of her white gown was in marked contrast to the bold richness of the uniforms worn by the two officers. It was a short-sleeved, low-bosomed, high-waisted gown of lace over satinbut Gervase was not interested in the gown. His practiced eye noted that the body beneath it was slender and long-legged, coltish yet undeniably feminine. Her neck, long and swanlike, held her head at a proud angle. And proud she had every right to be. Her dark hair, piled elegantly and threaded with jewels that might well be diamonds, gleamed under the light of a thousand candles in the chandeliers overhead. Her faceoval, dark-eyed, and straight-nosedwas classical perfection. Its beauty was nothing short of dazzling when she smiled, as she did in response to a remark made by the officer on her right, raising a lacy white fan to her chin as she did so.
It seemed to Gervase that he might well never have seen a lovelier womanif she could be called a woman. She was little more than a girl reallybut as breathtakingly lovely as a perfect rosebud that has not yet burst into full bloom.
Fortunately, perhaps, for the young lady in question and any parents or chaperons who were hovering in her vicinity, he preferred mature blooms to tender budsthey were more amenable to being seduced. He had looked his fill and was prepared to move his glass onward.
"That one would be well worth impressing," John Waldane said, noting his friend's pursed lips and the direction of his gaze. "But alas, Rosthorn, she has eyes for no man unless his broad shoulders are encased in a scarlet coat." He sighed forlornly and theatrically.
"And unless he is not a day older than two and twenty," Gervase agreed, noting the youth of the two Guards officers. He must indeed be getting old, he thought, when even military officers were beginning to look like schoolboys playing at war.
"You do not know who she is?" Waldane asked as Gervase turned away, intending to remove to the card room.
"Should I?" he asked in reply. "She is someone important, I presume?"
"One might say so," his friend told him. "She is staying with the Earl and Countess of Caddick on the Rue de Bellevue, since their daughter, Lady Rosamond Havelock, is her particular friend, though her brother is here too. He is attached to the embassy at the Hague in some capacity but is currently in Brussels with Sir Charles Stuart."
"And?" Gervase prompted, making a circular motion with his hand as if to hurry his friend along.
"One of the officers talking to herthe taller, golden-haired one on her rightis Viscount Gordon," Waldane said. "Captain Lord Gordon, Caddick's son and heir. The only son in fact. Hence the military commission in the Life Guards, I supposeall glory and gold lace but absolutely no danger. They will prance around on horseback on the parade ground, looking magnificent and sending all the ladies into a collective swoon, but they would swoon as a body themselves if this threat of war against Boney were to prove more a reality than an exciting game."
"They may surprise us yet if given the chance for glory," Gervase said more fairly. He took one step toward the ballroom doors. Obviously Waldane, mistaking his interest in the dark-haired girl for something more personal than it was, wanted him to beg for her identity.
"She is Lady Morgan Bedwyn," his friend said.
Gervase paused and looked back at him, his eyebrows raised. "Bedwyn?"
"The youngest of the family," Waldane said. "Fresh from the schoolroom, newly presented at court, the richest prize on the marriage mart if she has not already been snatched off it by Gordon. I understand that an announcement is expected any day. You had better keep your distance, Rosthorn, even if the wolf did remain behind in England when she came here." He slapped a friendly hand on Gervase's shoulder and grinned.
The wolf. Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. Although he had not seen the man for nine years and had not particularly thought about him in four or five, nevertheless Gervase could feel all the cold fury of an old hatred as he was reminded of him now. It was to Bewcastle he owed the strangeness of these English faces and these English voices, and his own self-consciousness in being among themhis own people. It was to Bewcastle he owed the fact that he had not been in Englandhis own country, his father's countrysince he was one and twenty. Instead he had wandered the Continent, not really belonging in France despite his French mother because he was English by birth and the heir to a British earldom, and not safe in many other European countries under French occupation for the same reason.
It was because of Bewcastlewhose friendship he had once cultivatedthat his whole life had been turned upside down and permanently changed for the worse. Exile really had seemed almost worse than death for the first year or sothat and the terrible humiliation and his impotence to convince anyone that he had been wrongfully treated. He had consoled himself eventually by becoming exactly what he was expected to bea rake who cared for nothing and no one except himself and the gratification of his own desires, whether sexual or otherwise. He had certainly allowed Bewcastle to win in more ways than one.
Ah, yes, he realized in that flashing moment while he still looked over his shoulder at Waldane, the hatred, the burning desire to do Bewcastle harm in return, had not faded in nine years. It had only been pushed beneath the surface of his consciousness.
And now he was in the same buildingthe same roomas Bewcastle's sister. It was almost too good to be true.
Gervase looked across the ballroom once more. She had one gloved hand upon the sleeve of the golden-haired officerCaptain Lord Gordonand was proceeding with him onto the dance floor, where the lines were forming for the opening set of country dances.
Lady Morgan Bedwyn.
Yes, he could well believe it. She carried herself with all the proud bearing, even arrogance, of a born aristocrat.
He could make mischief if he chose, Gervase thought, his eyes narrowing on her. The temptation was almost overwhelming.
As she took her place in the long line of ladies, and Captain Lord Gordona handsome young striplingwent to stand opposite in the line of gentlemen, her full smiling attention was on him. And he was very eligiblethe son and heir of an earl. Indeed, she was thought to be all but betrothed to him.
The thought of causing mischief grew even more appealing.
She was doubtless an innocent, despite the arrogance. She had probably been hedged about with governesses until the very moment of her presentation and with chaperons ever since then. He, on the other hand, was anything but innocent. It was true that, despite his reputation, he had only ever turned his seductive charms on women who could match him in experience and, usually, in years too. But if he chose to turn those charms on a young innocent, he might perhaps succeed in turning her attention away from a scarlet coat.
If he chose.
How could he not so choose?
As the music began, he felt the very definite stirrings of a slight temptation. Though truth to tell, it was not so slight either.
Lady Morgan Bedwyn performed the steps of the dance with precision and grace. She was small-breasted, Gervase could see, and willowy slender, neither of which physical attributes normally aroused him sexually. He was not aroused now, of course, merely appreciative of her perfect beauty.
And yesquite powerfully tempted to make trouble for her.
"Are you for the card room, Rosthorn?" John Waldane asked.
"Perhaps later," Gervase said without withdrawing his attention from the dancers, whose feet were thudding rhythmically on the wooden floor. "I must go in search of Lady Cameron and ask her to present me to Lady Morgan Bedwyn at the end of the set."
"Oh, I say!" His friend reached for his snuff box. "You devil you, Rosthorn! Bewcastle would challenge you to a duel even for raising your eyes to his sister."
"Bewcastle, as I remember it, does not deal in duels," Gervase said disdainfully, his nostrils flaring at the remembered insult. "Besides, I am Rosthorn. It is quite unexceptionable to request an introduction to the girl, Waldane. Or even to invite her to dance with me. I am not planning to invite her to elope with me, you know."
Though there was a wicked sense of satisfaction in imaging how Bewcastle would react if he did run off with the girl. Did he dare contemplate such a thing?
"Five pounds on it that she will insist upon dancing every set with a scarlet uniform and will grant you no more than the time of day," John Waldane said, chuckling once more.
"Only five?" Gervase clucked his tongue. "You wound me, Waldane. Make it ten, or one hundred if you wish. You will, of course, lose."
He could not take his eyes off the girl. She was Bewcastle's sister, someone close to him, someone dear to him. Someone through whom Bewcastle's pride and consequence, even if not his heart, could be hurt. It was doubtful that the man had a heartany more than he himself had, Gervase thought cynically.
It was strange how fate sometimes turned in one's favorthough it was about time. Belgium was as close as Gervase had come to returning home even though his father had been dead for longer than a year and his mother had long been urging him to come home to Windrush Grange in Kent to take up his inheritance and his duties and responsibilities as the new Earl of Rosthorn. He had been in Vienna when Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba in March. Now, two months later, he had taken the tentative step of moving to Brussels in Belgium, where the British and their allies were beginning to gather in some force for the expected showdown with Bonaparte. Many of the British who had sons in the military had brought their wives and daughters and other family members with them. A large number of other Britons had come flocking there too simply because Brussels during this spring of 1815 was the social place to be.
And that number included Lady Morgan Bedwyn, sister of the Duke of Bewcastle.
Ah yes, he was very much more than slightly tempted.
Fate had dealt him a potentially winning hand at last.