Although it was already spring, the air still held a crisp chill at night. Compared to the blinding light inside, the balcony seemed unbelievably dark. Eloisa Noble's eyes had to adjust so that the shadows took on recognizable forms. Looking around, she realized that no one else had decided to venture outside the ballroom and she was alone. A sigh of contentment slipped past her lips.
"Don't sound so relieved." A masculine voice came from the other side of a marble pillar. "The hostess might be offended to know you prefer this solitude to her party."
"Considering how crowded and uncomfortable it is in there, it can be forgiven." Eloisa tried to hide her startled expression, thankful it was so dark.
"Forgiveness is hard to find in most people."
Like a cat, Thomas Powell, the Duke of Ashford stepped from the shadows of the pillar into the dim light coming through the balcony doors. Eloisa's breathe clutched in her throat, giving off a little squeak. He was so much bigger than she remembered, but still just as handsome. Years away hadn't dimmed her girlish reaction as she had hoped.
This was a man who had been born beautiful. He knew how to smile so that the dimples in his cheeks displayed his boyish charm while the tall, athletic form of his body proved him a man. It was said he learned early in his youth how to use his good looks to charm his way under the skirts of many women, from upstairs maids to married aristocrats. His only saving grace was that he never took advantage of virgins. He preferred a more experienced woman if rumors were true, because he grew easily bored.
She remembered hearing that the poor man lost his sight a few years ago in some kind of riding accident. Of course he was being chased by someone's angry husband when it happened. Instead of finding his actions despicable like many had, she pitied him for his bad decisions. Losing one's sight was a steep penance for such indiscretion. They had only been introduced once during her season, but she remembered the bright blue of his eyes clearly; such a shame that they no longer saw the world around them.
"You sound frightened. Did I scare you?" His face was tilted in her direction, but his eyes weren't focused on her.
"Yes, I suppose you did. I believed I was alone out here."
"You would prefer I left?"
Her first instinct was to tell him yes, because his presence made her uncomfortable. But, there was something so vulnerable about him standing alone in the dark that changed her mind. She was familiar with the sting of rejection and didn't want him to feel that now. Even those who society loved could feel unwanted.
"I think I might be able to stand your company for a little while." She looked nervously in the direction of the doors. Regardless of her station as a chaperone, being caught alone with a man was a risk to her reputation; especially a man like Powell. "Do you think we might be able to move closer to the railing? I feel the need for fresh air."
"I don't really think I have a choice. I don't like to disappoint a lady.” He wrapped her hand around his arm and she noticed the strong muscle beneath the expensive fabric of his evening coat. "Knowing your name might be nice."
"The rumors say you prefer anonymity in your affairs with women."
He laughed and his muscles rippled beneath her fingers, stretching the fabric of his black dress coat. She had never been alone with a man before, besides her father. This was a rebellious act and she was excited by their banter. Flirting was a lot more fun than she had imagined.
"Your voice sounds familiar." They came to stop along the balcony's railing overlooking the garden. He released her but stayed close and leaned in as if they were intimate friends. She pulled at her long satin gloves, and tried to relax. "We've met before haven't we?"
"I'm surprised you remembered, since it was a long time ago and I was hardly memorable."
"I never forget a woman."
"You must have an incredible memory then."
She wasn't sure what made her say such things to him. Last time they met she had barely managed to put together a few words of polite greeting. Now she spoke as if they were the oldest of friends. If his smile was any indication, he enjoyed the exchange just as much. Eloisa felt butterflies in her stomach as she watched those soft lips moving.
"I think you have just insulted me." His grin widened. "But I'm not sure how I would prove it."
"I meant no insult, I was only being honest. You must know the kind of reputation you have."
"Not really. Very few people want to talk to me about my own reputation."
"They are probably too frightened."
"But you're not scared, are you?" His voice had changed, deepened somehow. Eloisa found she was leaning in to hear him, bringing her body closer to his than propriety allowed. Any closer and she would be rubbing her cheek against the white of his dress shirt.
"I was once, but not anymore," she matched her whispered tone to his.
He pulled back then, those brilliant blue eyes reflecting the moonlight mixed with something else. She knew he was unable to see her but it still made her tremble. The predator that he once was still lingered in the shadows of those eyes. An injured animal could still be just as dangerous, if not more so.
"We have met." He tapped his chin with one of his long fingers. "I wonder why I can't picture your face. It must be lovely."
"Why must I be lovely?"
"Because your voice is too sweet to belong to someone ugly."
Eloisa was not the type of woman to hold beauty in the highest esteem. That might be because she had always been described as plain. During her early girlhood years she had struggled to make her appearance more pleasing, but there was no fighting against Mother Nature. She grew tall quickly with long limbs and almost no curves. Even her breasts were small, hardly worth garnering a man's attention. Although her complexion was nice, her face was considered ordinary. The soft brown of her eyes matched her hair, which couldn't be described as either curly or straight. When released from its bun, her hair fell in thick waves down her back.
"What if I'm simply ordinary?" She pressed him.
It would have been easier to accept the compliment, but that seemed somehow dishonest. Eloisa was a woman who was not considered pretty but not considered ugly. Truthfully, she was very seldom considered at all. Life had only allowed her to have one season in London, but that had been enough to teach her that those who were ordinary didn't belong. Only the love for her cousin could have brought her back to a place where she was ignored.
"I wouldn't believe it. You're too full of spirit." He reached out to trace the line of her jaw and she shivered at his touch. "I only wish I remembered you."
"I'm glad you don't because I would hate to see you disappointed. You were not as impressed with me as I was with you."
"I impressed you?" Such a smug smile lit up his face that even in the shadows she saw the glint of his teeth.
"You impressed everyone back then."
"It must have been a long time ago."
"Almost five years."
The way his face changed, growing more serious, she worried she might have said too much. That clue might have been the one that sparked his memory or it might have simply given away her age. Either way he no longer looked as carefree as he had been moments before.
"That was before the accident."
There was no inflection in his voice, just a flat statement. She didn't know if she was supposed to respond to it or not, since her mind went blank. Nothing had ever rendered her speechless before. He saved her from it by continuing on, but in a lighter tone.
"Why haven't I seen you since then?" he asked, pulling his hand back.
"I went abroad, to the continent." She was at ease talking to him. "My father and I traveled slowly, enjoying as much of the local offerings as possible."
"What made you return?"
"Those I am very familiar with." He leaned against the railing of the balcony. Eloisa watched the lock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and wanted to brush it aside. Such thoughts were ridiculous considering they hardly knew each other.
She was glad to see a shift in the conversation back to him. "Is it true that you're looking for a wife this season?"
"Perhaps. Would you be interested in the position?" He wiggled his eyebrows and she laughed at his silly antics.
"Hardly. I'm just curious."
"Then yes, I'm looking for a wife but not for the ordinary reasons." His head away from her, to face the tiny garden on the other side of the balcony. "I'm looking for a very specific woman to be my wife. One who would do more for me than just give me a family. I want someone to change my luck."
"Oh?" Eloisa laughed because it was too funny to resist. His face had been so serious when he said that, then his blond eyebrows together at her reaction.
"You find that amusing?"
"The papers said you fell from a horse escaping an angry husband, which could happen to anyone." Eloisa didn't want to bring up bad memories, so she spoke the words slowly.
"Not when I'm one of the best riders in London. I've never fallen from a horse before that incident or after." Something in his expression told her how deeply upsetting it was to talk about. She was no longer laughing.
"Do you think with the right wife you will be able to see again?" she asked.
A wry smile appeared. "No, I'm not foolish enough to think a woman will produce a miracle. My sight wasn't the only thing I lost when I fell from that horse."
Her eyes roamed over his body to look for any other signs of injury. She let her eyes linger in a few places. "You look to be fine to me."
"It's not about what you can see; it's about how everyone now looks at me. I'm not exactly the golden boy I was before."
Eloisa had such little experience with popularity that she was unable to understand the loss of it. The sadness reflected in his eyes made her want to comfort him in some way.
"I'm still looking at you the same." She told him.
Her breathing stuttered when he reached up with one hand to brush his thumb across her cheek. "I wish I was able to see that look."
The sound of her own voice coming out as a sultry whisper surprised her enough that she was able to step away from his touch. With a sigh, his arm dropped and he continued to speak.
"In order to return to society’s good graces I need to marry someone they will love. If she can love me, they will love me too." He sounded confident in his plan.
"I imagine any number of women are in love with you." Eloisa was certain of it, though she was not among them. "It won't be too difficult to find one who is willing to overlook your previous behavior."
"If only it were that easy."
"I fear my lack of sight makes it difficult to determine who the right woman is. I must find this seasons diamond of the first water without being able to look at her." Powell had a faint smile on his face. He found humor in his plight.
"That might be a benefit, since beauty doesn't always prove to be the best quality." Eloisa spoke from experience.
He laughed outright at the comment, which made her glare up at him. "Society wouldn't approve of me marrying a hag."
"You seem to have changed less than I expected. Five years ago you were just as proud and vain."
"Pride is someone else's sin."
"Then vanity fits you." She smiled at him, and then remembered it was a wasted gesture. "What kind of woman cures that?"
"I believe it is a woman who is equally beautiful as me, although that might not be possible." He had the nerve to wink at her.
"I think the moonlight might be playing tricks, because you aren't as handsome as you were five minutes ago."
The insult was supposed to knock him down a bit, but instead he only smiled more. "You are a judge with high standards. Could you tell me who might be the woman I'm looking for?"
Her teeth nibbled at the edge of her lip. Of course she knew, it was her very own cousin. There was no way for her to stop him from pursuing Sarah, but she didn't want to make it easy for him either.
"I'm afraid I can't help you, Your Grace." She moved away from him toward the ballroom doors.
"Can't or won't?"
It was such a bold question, she knew he expected her to lie.
"I am simply choosing not to assist you. I'm afraid you're on your own in your hunt."
The shocked look on his face made her smile as she swept away from him and back into the ballroom. It was the first time Eloisa had ever left a man speechless.
Her smile lingered when she found her cousin, still holding court over a swarm of men. Sarah Hesston, the daughter of a marquis, was the season's diamond of the first water. The blues and greens in the folds of her skirt complemented her coloring and her bodice was cut low enough to draw every male eye in the room.
Once you spent time with Sarah, you could see that she had more than just her good looks. She had a sharp wit and independent ideas and came very close to being a bluestocking. She loved to read and enjoyed a good debate over a wide variety of topics. The only thing she didn't like to talk about was her own good looks. Compliments irritated her because they were focused on all the wrong things. She looked bothered by the attention surrounding her now.
"You look refreshed," Sarah whispered to Eloisa when she stood beside her. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
Sarah gave her cousin a look that showed she knew that was a lie, but let it go. There were so many people listening. Once they got home there would be endless questions to answer.
Sarah crooked a finger in the direction of the young men. In an instant three of them had broken away and were scrambling to where the ladies stood. They were like puppies pushing each other aside to be in front. Sarah smiled sweetly, but it was the fake smile she used when she wanted something from the opposite sex.
"I'm afraid my cousin and I have become quite thirsty. Would any of you be brave enough to venture out for something for us to drink?" Sarah gave each of them a direct look for a few seconds.
She mocked them, as she often did, but they never noticed. They were too busy tripping over each other in a rush to meet the challenge. The remaining young men looked envious that the other three had been chosen, even if it was for a foolish errand.
"At least when they return we won't have to worry about being thirsty again." Sarah gave a little half smile. "They will bring back enough to last us the rest of the evening."
"That's if they make it back in one piece, which might be hoping for too much." Eloisa no longer saw any of them in the crowd of people.
Sarah gave her a shrug. "If not we can simply send a few more of them on a search party. That might give us some much-needed rest."
"Don't you feel bad about collecting so many suitors at once? Sharing with some of the other ladies might be to your benefit."
"I can't help it if they prefer me. The other ladies need to work harder to get their attention."
"They would have to perform some kind of animal act to even compete."
Sarah laughed like she always did at her cousin's jokes and it caught the attention of everyone around them. Men stared with lust and women with envy, but she always ignored them all. On the outside, Sarah was the picture of English elegance, with soft blonde hair and big blue eyes. Like a little doll, she had delicate features and a petite figure. It was easy to see why she was considered the success of the season.
"You should be happy your dance card is full at every event," said Eloisa.
"I know I should be, but I find it more irritating than enjoyable." Sarah's face puckered for a few seconds. "I haven't found a single man I would consider and yet I must pretend I have an interest."
"It's better to be a success than a failure your first season."
A failure was what Eloisa's first and only season had been. It was almost a lifetime ago in her mind, but it had only been five years since she was in her cousin's place. Their experiences with society were completely different. It was a perfect example of how beauty determined a person's place. She was relieved to know her cousin wasn't going to suffer the same embarrassments she had.
Nothing scandalous had happened. She have preferred that to the silent treatment she received. The walls of the ballroom had been her home when no one asked her to dance. Each time she was passed over for someone else she felt herself shrinking back even further until she no longer even tried to please anyone. The memories of it were enough to bring heat to her cheeks. Eloisa’s mother had been optimistic that a second season was going to be a success, but her sudden death meant it never happened.
"Your dance card is full enough now to make up for anything you might have missed then." Sarah gave her a nudge, pulling her away from those sad memories.
"Only because your card is full and I'm the next available candidate." She tried not to sound bitter when she spoke.
"It's better than spending the entire night sitting with the other chaperones."
The corner of the room that was chosen for the chaperons to sit was easily seen from where they stood. A dozen or so old ladies in buttoned up gowns and lace caps with their eyes narrowed as they watched those around them. It was likely watching a flock of vultures looking for prey.
Eloisa shuddered at the thought of how close she was to becoming one of them. "That's what I’m supposed be doing if I were a proper chaperone." She sighed. "I'm supposed to be assessing the men for their eligibility for you and keeping a close eye on your behavior."
"Which you can do much better while you're dancing with them than you can while watching from a distance."
"But it gives the mistaken impression that I'm also in the marriage market."
"What's wrong with that?"
Eloisa raised one eyebrow at her cousin, letting it say everything for her.
"You are a lovely young woman who could still find a husband if you wanted to." Sarah pretended not to see the skeptical look Eloisa had.
"Even if I wasn't a social failure," Eloisa paused for emphasis, "I'm well past the age of coming out."
"You are barely five and twenty."
"Which puts me firmly on the shelf."
"I wish you hadn't waited so long to have your first season. You might have done better if you weren't already twenty."
"No one ever paid me enough attention to notice my age. I could have been still in the nursery for all they knew."
Sarah put her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes. It was a look of determination. "I refuse to give up that easily."
"I think you and my father have formed some kind of an alliance against me." Eloisa pictured them both conspiring in some darkened corner. "He seems equally determined for me to find a husband. Every letter I get from him asks if I have met anyone special."
"If he had accepted our offer to join you here his assistance might have been better."
"London reminds him of mother and he isn't ready for that yet." Eloisa didn't blame her father for continuing to hide iin a foreign country.
"At least we can be grateful he let you return."
That had not been her decision. If she had been able to choose, Eloisa would never have come back to London. Only the promise she had made to her mother brought her here to help Sarah. As soon as her cousin was happily settled she planned to return to her travels permanently.
"Your father was wrong for keeping you away for so long," said Sarah, "hardly anyone remembers you now."
"Another thing to be grateful for."
Sarah’s swat to Eloisa’s arm stung through the fabric of her evening gloves. She rubbed the sore spot but smiled.
"If only they knew you the way I know you, they would see how exceptional you are," Sarah said.
It was a sweet sentiment coming from a very naïve girl. Eloisa knew better because she had learned the hard way. Nobody in society wanted to really get to know anybody else. The only thing that mattered was the image you presented to them; which was why Sarah was so much more successful at it.
"You should be more concerned with getting to know these gentlemen," said Eloisa, watching them closely, "One of them might spark your interest if you give them a chance."
"I have given them all a fair chance and none of them interest me. I'm looking for something more."
"It would be easier to find if you were more specific."
"I don't know, something..." Sarah's voice trailed off before she finished.
Something had caught her cousin's attention across the room. Eloisa realized that everyone was slowly turning to stare in the same direction. They were all staring at the doorway and more importantly the man now standing in it. The Duke of Ashford had finally made his appearance. Seeing him again, Eloisa blushed at the memory of their conversation on the.
"Do we know him?" Sarah asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Only by reputation."
"He looks like he has a delicious one." Sarah was always interested in a good mystery.
He was still so handsome and confident. It wasn't fair that he remained so perfect after all those years. "Scandalous is what I remember."
"Everyone is watching him, but he doesn't seem to notice." Sarah sounded impressed, not something that happened often.
“He's accustomed to being the center of attention," Eloisa said, wondering if he could still feel all the eyes that were watching him.
"Still, his composure seems unnatural, like he's made of stone."
That was what Eloisa had always compared him to, a polished marble statue. He had that kind of beauty without any softness. She wondered if his skin was as smooth under his clothes, and the image made her blush.
Thomas stood along the edge of the dance floor with a drink in his hand. His head was tilted, trying to listen carefully to the overwhelming noise in the room. He wasn't entering it yet, but seemed to be waiting for something.
"He's only a man," Eloisa said, as much to her cousin as to her own imagination. "A few years ago he was injured in a scandalous accident and lost his sight. I believe this is his first season in London since."
"Has the injury changed him greatly?"
"Men like that don't change," Eloisa found herself saying. "They simply become subtler about it."
"Nothing about him seems very subtle," Sarah said. "He looks about as arrogant as a man can be. If his chest puffs out any further he would look like a bird."
"He hasn't swung you over his shoulder to carry you away, so this is subtle for him."
Sarah laughed and Eloisa watched as Thomas turned his head toward the sound even from across the room. A look of determination replaced his previously casual expression. Perhaps she had spoken too soon.
Hearing the familiar sound of a woman's laughter caught his attention. It reminded him why he was there. This was both his duty and his burden. Hiding outside, engaged in conversation with a mysterious woman wasn't going to help his cause. Especially when she wasn't willing to divulge her name.
There was something about the woman that was also familiar, but no face came to mind. Admittedly, he hadn't been very observant before the accident, but she should have left an impression. She had left one with him now. Her bold attitude had been refreshing when compared to the rest of the ladies he met in his hunt for a bride. If she was as beautiful as she was charming, he might not have to continue his search for a wife.
"I should have known you were out there brooding." His mother's gentle voice was a welcome interruption to his thoughts. "You are hardly putting any effort into this."
He was unable to see her expression, but it was easy to imagine how similar it would be to the one she gave him when he misbehaved as a child. His memory worked well enough to paint a vivid image of it and he smiled.
"I needed a breath of fresh air. It's unbearably hot in here."
"That's true." He felt the air move as his mother fanned herself. "The hostess must be mad to have invited so many."
"I doubt she knew they would all attend. Success has been her downfall."
"You are partially to blame for that."
Catherine Powell, the current Duchess of Ashford had always praised her children openly. Most of her peers considered it unfashionable but she never cared.
"Has my return caused a stir?" He knew she loved a good opportunity to gossip.
"Of course it has, especially since they know why you're here. Every matchmaking mama in the country is ready to shove their daughter at you."
"Selection is good, but I have to be very careful about my choice. She has to be the perfect one." Thomas had too much at stake to make the wrong choice.
"Perfection is highly overrated, dear."
Her hand came to rest on his arm and knew she was ready for him to escort her around the ballroom. It was purely superficial, since she was really leading him. It was an act they had practiced and perfected. Then he felt the hard wood of his cane being pressed into his hand. It was a smooth hardwood with an ornate carving in the shape of a lion's head at the top. He had been told it was dark and expensive but that didn't make him enjoy carrying it any more.
"You seem to have forgotten this in the carriage. I thought you might want it." His mother wrapped his fingers around it.
Thomas ground his teeth in frustration. "I hoped to make my return without it."
"The doctor told you to use it. It will make it easier for you to get around in new settings."
"I have been in this ballroom dozens of times."
Thomas let the cane settle into his palm and tapped it on the hard marble floor. It was made of an rare dark wood with pure silver details on the head. He could hear the sound clearly as he moved it around. Hours of practice at home were not the same as using it in the company of members of society.
"What if I hoped for a life of intrigue? I can never sneak up on a person with this,” Thomas said, knowing he sounded childish.
"My son, the spy." His mother laughed.
"I could have had a grand career. Now I will have to settle for the title alone."
He smiled when she laughed even harder. They started making their entrance into the ballroom, using his cane as a guide.
"I wish you would tell me what qualities you're looking for in a future duchess." His mother stretched up as she whispered and he leaned down slightly to better hear her. She had always been petite but it was comical when standing next to any of her three sons who were all over six feet.
"I would if I knew myself." He let the lie slip out easily. "Probably the same qualities all men want, a pretty face and a tolerable personality."
"You should be looking for a woman with immeasurable patience, if she is going to tolerate you."
He gave the little hand on his arm a squeeze with his own. "No one has tolerated me as well as you have. You have set the bar high for my future wife."
He wished he could see her blush, but he knew it was there. His mother had always responded that way to compliments. She had been a beauty when his father married her and never lost that childish sparkle. It was from her that Thomas got his blond hair and blue eyes, since his father and brothers where dark in both regards.
"You think by flattering me you can distract me, but I'm not that easy to manipulate. I want to know who it is we're supposed to be looking for."
"You're looking." He gave her a mischievous smile. "I'm simply listening."
Through the tumble of noise, the sound of a lady’s laughter caught his attention and he turned his head toward it. It was not the delicate, artificial kind he was used to hearing from ladies. This was a resonating sound that expressed genuine feeling. It was familiar, like the lady from the balcony.
"Who is that laughing?"
There was no one in London his mother didn't know, so she would certainly be able to introduce him to his mystery lady.
"I'm not sure, I can't see very well through the crowd."
"Then we should get closer."
Being polite didn't matter, Thomas just pushed his way through the people. He followed the sound, hoping it continued long enough to locate her. The bustles on the ladies’ gowns made it difficult to push past, but he wasn't going to let it stop him. If he got called out in the morning for manhandling them, he would just have to face it.
"Can you see who it is?" Thomas tried not to sound eager for the answer.
"Oh, that's Lady Sarah Langston, the daughter of a marquis, I believe, and her cousin, who is acting as her chaperone for the season. One of them must have been laughing."
"Have I met the lady before?" The name didn't sound familiar at all.
"No, it's her first season, I believe." That meant she wasn't the mysterious woman who had reprimanded him for not remembering her. "Everyone says she has become this season's biggest success. Even without your sight, you seem to be drawn to beauty."
He was disappointed she wasn't the woman from the balcony, but Lady Sarah sounded like someone who belonged on his list of potential brides. It was crucial his wife be beautiful in order to restore his reputation with society. Since his eyesight was no longer reliable to judge that, the opinion of the ton would be his guide. If his mystery woman was her chaperone, then she was strictly out of the question.
"Does she live up to that description?" Thomas asked his mother.
"I would certainly say so. She has a face I would have been jealous of in my own season."
"Then I must have an introduction."
If his mother believed this girl was the loveliest of the season, he wasn't in a position to argue. He needed to push thoughts of the other woman aside and focus his charm on Lady Sarah. Though he hadn't been using his flirting skills as much during his recovery, he remembered how it was supposed to go. Charming the ladies had always been something he prided himself on.
"Miss Noble, may I introduce my son to you and your cousin?" His mother's voice was sweet and elegant as she led him by the hand to the group. "I hoped Lady Sarah might be able to get a smile out of him, since she seems to have that effect on all the other men."
There was that sound again, the rich sound of laughter. It was close, on the other side of where his mother stood. His spirits lifted at the sound of it.
"I'm glad you find my sour mood amusing, Miss Noble," Thomas said.
"My apologies, but your face did look rather serious for being at a social affair." She spoke to him directly, without the slightest hint of apology in her voice. "I'm afraid I find it impossible not to laugh when something strikes me as funny."
After his mother made the introduction he was embarrassed to realize that even after knowing her name, he still couldn't remember what Eloisa looked like. There was something vaguely familiar, but he couldn't think of her hair color or even her figure. He always prided himself on making a note of these details about women. It baffled him that he remembered nothing about her. For the first time in a long time he was freshly disappointed by the loss of his sight.
"Did you spend a lot of time with my cousin when she had her season?" Lady Sarah asked.
"Sadly, no, but a short time was all I needed to be impressed by her." Thomas didn't want to offend anyone by admitting the truth.
"How odd that I never knew." Eloisa had a mocking tone. "I must not have been paying very close attention."
Turning in the direction of Lady Sarah, he bowed graciously. "I'm glad to finally meet you, Lady Sarah. Everyone has said such wonderful things about you."
"That you are a beauty beyond compare." It was a little overly dramatic, but in his experience women liked that.
"Is beauty the only thing you value in a woman? That seems absurd considering your condition." Sarah's voice was tart.