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“Mrs. Gladwell’s?”  Philip Montcalm raised one aristocratic eyebrow at his friend.  “Fitzimmons, are you drunk?”

“More sober than many a judge,” Fitzsimmons answered carelessly as he adjusted the rings on his fingers and lightly touched his elaborate cravat to assure himself the creases were still in perfect order.  “At least for the moment.”

“You said we’d be going to Crockburn’s.” Philip was aware he sounded petulant, which increased his annoyance.  Gideon’s driver, however, had already maneuvered his carriage into the line of conveyances waiting in front of the elegant stone mansion.  A steady stream of well-dressed women mounted the stairs on the arms of their men.   Philip eyed them with something approaching dangerously close to cynicism.  He had been ready for a night of gambling, drinking and the sort of women who didn’t require him to be charming before they said yes.

“We’ll get to the gaming tables soon enough, you have my word.”  Gideon resettled his tall hat on his head.  “But here’s some people here I need to speak to first.  You were invited of course?”

Philip waved Fitzsimmon’s facetious words away.  “Of course I was invited.  I just…not feeling like it.”

Which was exactly the wrong thing to say, because it made Gideon look at him again.  Gideon played the part of lazy dandy to perfection, but there was an active mind under that fussy, gilded exterior, one that was entirely too sharp for Philip’s comfort just then.

“What’s wrong with you, Montcalm?  Never knew the Lord of the Rakes to turn down a first look at the season’s new crop of pretty faces.”

Unfortunately, Gideon was right.  Philip should have been halfway up the stairs already.  Mrs. Gladwell cast the invitations for her first-of-the-season ball  broadly, but it was still considered something of a coup to get in.  There’d be the usual selection of girls straight out of the school room, of course, but these would be of no interest to him.  The ton’s matchmaking mamas might hold him up as a pattern card of the sort of man their daughters should avoid, but the truth was he avoided them.  Inexperienced girls had never suited his particular tastes.  There would, however, also would be plenty of other types — sophisticated women whose husbands had stayed in the country by prior arrangement or widows interested in exercising the latitude society allowed them.  Now that the peace was finally concluded, there might even be a French woman to laugh at the rules of English society with him.

All these and more waited inside Mrs. Gladwell’s famous gilt-pillared ballroom, and here he was, outside and in need of a new paramour, or two.  Inside this grand house might very wait that as-of-yet-unknown fair one with whom he could enjoy a night of passion, or even an affair of a few weeks or more.  For preference, she’d be an eager and adventurous beauty willing to join him in the more inventive possibilities the bed chamber offered.  Perhaps she’d be that tall, curvaceous creature in amber walking in now on accompanied only by her little blond friend.

But even as he pursued this mental catalogue of delightful possibilities, Philip couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for actually walking into the ball.  The idea of navigating the Gladwell First Crush filled him with — well, not horror exactly.  Horror might have been preferable.  What Philip felt as he looked up at the brightly lit windows was closer to weariness.

Gideon’s footman unlatched the carriage door and stepped aside.  “Not coming, then?” asked Gideon, clearly more than a little impatient to be gone himself.  “I’ll tell you what.  If you truly cannot bear the thought of beautiful women falling all over themselves for a night with the Lord of the Rakes, I’ll tell my man drive on to Crockburn’s and catch you up there.”

For a moment this seemed the best solution.  As little as he liked to admit it, melancholy had gotten its hooks into him, and Drinking and gaming stood a better chance at loosening its grip than the ballroom.  It seemed his recent, call it parting, from Eugenia had cut deeper than he’d initially thought.

But even as he thought this, Philip’s pride rose in stubborn rebellion.  He’d be hanged if he’d let Eugenia’s appalling and over-dramatic ending of their affair ruin the start of his new season.  It was as Father always said.  No real man thought twice about the woman who left him.  His eye was always on the next.

Philip made himself sigh with the appropriate level of world-weariness. It wouldn’t do, after all, to turn suddenly enthusiastic right after so much reluctance.  “Oh, all right.  Since we’re here, may as well see who’s about.”

The smile Gideon gave him said his friend knew he was play-acting, but of course neither of them was going to mention it.

###

         “Mr. Fitzsimmons!  Mr. Montcalm!” Mrs. Gladwell sailed up to Philip and Gideon as they stepped across the threshold of her ballroom.  A statuesque woman, Mrs. Gladwell believed in doing up her person up in as much luxury as the rest of her arrangements.  A veritable forest of dyed ostrich plumes nodded above her turban as she extended her hand for Philip to bow over.  “Really, this is most inconsiderate!  Why didn’t you tell me you were coming!  I had given up in despair of you, and so, may I add, had half the ladies I invited.”

“I fear inconsiderate is one of my primary characteristics, Mrs. Gladwell,” Philip replied with a smile, as he raised her emerald-gloved hand to his lips.  “But I am sorry if it has inconvenienced you, or any of your guests.”

Mrs. Gladwell responded to this pretty apology with a flutter of eyelashes that both of them knew better than to take seriously.  “Well, I’m sure we’ll all manage to forgive you, somehow.  Especially if you agree to do me a particular favor and waltz with Miss Langley.”

“I am entirely yours to command Mrs. Gladwell,” Philip replied, ignoring the twitch of Gideon’s mouth that came perilously close to a smirk.  Mrs. Gladwell, however, simply laughed.

“As intriguing a picture as that presents, I shall exercise prudence and not believe you in the slightest.” She rapped him gently on the shoulder with the folded fan that dangled from her wrist.  “Now, off you two go.  And don’t forget about Miss Langley.”

“I will not.  You have my solemn oath upon it. ”

“Miss Langley?” murmured Gideon as they moved into the ballroom as far as the brimming crowd would permit, which was not far at all.

“Yes, well,” acknowledged Philip with a shrug.  “One must humor one’s hostess.  Besides, there are worse partners.  Miss Langley at least can carry on a good conversation.”

Gideon favored him with another too-sharp looks.  “Well, I shall leave you to it.  Hardy’s over there, and I need a word with him.”  He paused.  “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Philip.”

But before Philip could make any reply, Gideon slipped into the crowd, leaving Philip to the intricate task of navigating the ballroom on his own.

It was not long, however, before Philip felt his spirits sinking again.  The grand and over-decorated rooms were already too crowded, too hot and far, far too loud. One could barely hear the first-rate musicians Mrs. Gladwell had hired for the dancing, and the elaborate chalk drawing she’d commissioned for the floor was nothing but a colorful blur underfoot.  Now that he was here, however,  Philip found himself wishing to be somewhere else.  Just where that was, he could not have said.  Where should a young man with money and freedom be except at the opening of the season?

         What’s the matter with me?  He thought irritably.  Quite apart from the perspective of finding a new paramour, Philip had many acquaintances to greet, and if he truly was itching for play, there was always the card room.

But he knew what was the matter.  The hell of it was, he couldn’t tell anyone.   Perhaps he’d better take Gideon up on his offer to have the carriage drive him Crockburn’s.  But no, that would just expose him to more of Fitzsimmons awkward questions.  Besides, he’d promised Mrs. Gladwell he’d dance with Miss Langley.   He’d keep that promise, at least.

As it transpired, Meredith Langley proved fairly easy to find.  A little taller than average and a little plumper than fashionable, Miss Langley had positioned herself on the far edge of the ballroom, about halfway between the door to the retiring room and the cluster of gossiping chaperones on their little gilt chairs.  Her plain, butter-yellow dress had been expertly made over for the new season, and her grey eyes were somewhat obscured by her spectacles, but her manner as she turned toward Philip was frank and open.

“Why, Mr. Montcalm, how delightful.”  Miss Langley curtsied in response to his bow.  Her smile and greeting were perfectly calculated to suit to the occasion and the differences in their standings, being pleasant but not too forward and devoid of anything that might be possibly considered flirtation.  “I was hoping to see you this evening.”

“Were you?  I’m flattered, Miss Langley.”  Philip returned his most charming smile and another small bow.  “To what do I owe this mark of your favor?”

Miss Langley smiled.  One of the reasons he’d always liked Miss Langley was they each understood who the other was, and she was in absolutely no danger of taking his flirtations to heart.  “Well, if I may be bold, I’m sure you know Lady Preston is hosting a charity concert by Signor Marizetti at her home later in the week.”

“I had heard something of it.”  In fact, the town had been abuzz with it since Philip had arrived.  Sr. Marizetti had given only one private performance last season, and that had been for the Prince of Wales.

“A…friend of mother’s was particularly hoping to obtain tickets, but ours have already been promised, and it seems there are none at all to be had.”  Miss. Langley blinked up at him in a show of entirely feigned helplessness.  “As you’re such a favorite of Lady Preston’s, I was wondering if you could speak to her for me?”

Meredith Langley was destined to be one of society’s ‘useful women.’  These women — usually ladies of the ton in reduced circumstances — were extended hospitality by society matrons because they were very good at finding hard-to-come-by invitations or tickets for exclusive events, and were also able to perform certain other useful functions, like mentioning beneficial pieces of gossip to the right newspapermen.  It was entirely possible that the wild flutter about the Preston concert had been fanned by Miss Langley and her mother.

“I will certainly be able to oblige you,” Philip replied.  “If.”

Miss Langley arched her brows.  “If, Mr. Montcalm?”

“If you will favor me with your hand for the next waltz.”

Rather than her hand, Miss Langley favored him with a long, steady look from behind her gold-rimmed spectacles.  Unlike most ladies with poor eyesight, she allowed herself to be seen in public with them, a fact that went a fair way to shocking — if not actually appalling —  the more fastidious of London’s beaus.  Sometimes, Philip wondered if this was why she did it.

“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Montcalm,” said Miss Langley.  “But as it happens, I am not dancing tonight.”

“How very distressing.  I was counting on you.  I hope it was not something I’ve said?”

That drew a small laugh.  ““Mr. Montcalm, I have never known you to speak a wrong word.  It would be quite out of character.  No, I am simply…tired.”  She spoke this last to the tips of her slippers.  Montcalm found himself wondering if she suspected he had been set this task by their hostess, and found he did not at all like that possibility.

“I understand.  I also find myself rather…tired.  Shall we rest ourselves together?”  He gestured towards one of the room’s alcoves where a velveteen sofa waited, amazingly unoccupied.

A complicated series of calculations flickered across Miss Langley’s face.  “Perhaps for a moment,” she said, but her restless grey eyes were already scanning the room.  Philip felt something uncomfortably close to a pang of envy.  Whatever her circumstances, Miss Langley, at least, had something reliable with which to occupy herself.  “I fear I have several acquaintances I must speak to.”

“You and Mr. Fitzsimmons both.  Heigh-ho!”  Philip sighed dramatically, and was rewarded by another of Miss Langley’s quiet smiles.  “Everyone has someone to speak to but me!”

“Oh, surely not!  This room is full to the brim of women who want to speak with you.” She gestured about with her fan.  “I shall soon have to muster a blush for being the object of so much envy.”

Miss Langley was exaggerating, but not by much.  A surreptitious scan of the room showed Philip the bright flash of women’s glances — some shy, or subtle, some bold, some of undisguised desire.

That was when Philip caught sight of the woman in amber silk.

Philip’s gaze froze.  This was the same woman he had noticed climbing the stairs earlier, he was sure of it.  In the darkness outside, he had seen an attractive woman — tall, well-curved and dark-haired.  Now, in the blazing light of Mrs. Gladwell’s three chandeliers, he saw a rare and stunning beauty.  Her complexion glowed with a more robust hue than was the current ideal of fashion, but that warmth sorted well with her darkly glistening curls.  He liked the single white flower she had tucked into the band of pearls holding those curls in the Grecian style.  It was a fetching bit of summer vibrancy that stood out against the turbans and dyed plumes most of the other ladies sported.  Her gown of dramatic amber silk was a slightly old-fashioned cut but it showed her perfectly curved body to distinct advantage.  But what held him was her eyes.  They were wide and deep, and slanted dramatically above her high cheekbones.  Philip found himself wondering what color those eyes were, and whether they would be shy or bold when a man approached.

“Who is that, Miss Langley?” The words came out almost as a croak.  Philip’s mouth had gone unaccountably dry.

Miss Langley craned her neck, trying to glimpse which of the women he might be talking about.  “Do you mean Miss Fiona Rayburn?  I wouldn’t have thought her your sort, and you should know she’s engaged to the Honorable Mr. James Westbrook.”

Philip had been so absorbed in contemplating the woman in amber, he’d barely noticed the smaller, paler girl still at her right hand.  “No, no, next to her.  With the chestnut curls and the amber gown.”

Miss Langley craned further.  But at just that moment, the fair girl took her friend’s arm and led the amber lady  another few steps along the edge of the room until they were obscured by one of Mrs. Gladwell’s famous gilded pillars.  Ah.  Philip’s smile broadened.  The amber lady’s friend — Fiona Rayburn, was it? — had pulled her aside to shield her from the importunate gaze of the Lord of the Rakes.

But, it seemed, the lady herself was possessed of a bit more nerve, or at least curiosity.  Moving with ostentatious care, the amber lady stepped a little ways out from behind the pillar, and turned her head.  She didn’t look directly at him, not at first.  Rather, she scanned the shifting, noisy crowd of the ballroom, as if looking for an acquaintance.  Only slowly did her eyes slip toward him, and their gazes locked.

Lord, she was beautiful.  Looking at her wide eyes Philip felt like a schoolboy, all eagerness and no finesse.  Every bit as tempting was her luscious mouth.  A fastidious dandy like Gideon might say those full, dark  lips were too wide for her delicate face, but Philip found those lips deeply intriguing.  He thought how it would feel to teach that full mouth to tease and to take, and enjoy every moment of it.

Not that mouth and eyes were her only intriguing features.  Whoever she was, she was far enough past the first blush of youth to have developed genuine bearing.  Her high-waited amber gown was cut to within a hairs-breadth of propriety.  It showed her lush and rounded form from throat to derriere.  A man could spend a long, pleasurable time thoroughly appreciating the nuances of such curves.

“I don’t know her,” said Miss Langley in answer to a question Philip had almost forgotten he’d asked.  “But clearly, Mr. Banbridge does.”  She pointed discretely with her fan to the narrow man in his nip-waisted silk coat endeavoring to shoulder his way through the crowd.

Philip frowned.  He had an acquaintance with Lewis Banbridge, but it wasn’t one he particularly enjoyed.  Banbridge was a dandy to rival Gideon Fitzsimmons.  The difference between them was Fitzsimmons made his own way, but Banbridge lived off his father and his expectations.  Old Lord Banbridge, however, was less than pleased with the way his son had turned out and kept Lewis on a ludicrously short leash.  The result was that Banbridge owed everyone in town, including Philip.

Philip found himself watching intently as Banbridge edged free of the crush, strolled up to the amber lady and made his bow.  How would she receive him?  Could she conceivably be a Banbridge relative?  Or were they acquaintances?  Friends?  More?  These possibilities flashed through Philip’s mind in a single heated, surprisingly worried, instant.

Much to Philip’s relief, the amber lady’s face stayed blank and cool as Banbridge spoke.  He could not hear what she said to Banbridge, but he could see her mouth framing only brief answers in response to his remarks. In fact, Miss Rayburn seemed to be carrying the greater part of the conversation while the amber lady’s attention drifted about the gathering.

And lighted on him, again.  Was it his imagination, or had the lady begun to color under his gaze?  Damnit, he was too far away to tell, and he found he very much wanted to know.  He held her gaze, silently, willing that she keep looking at him.  She did, for a time.  For long enough for him to see something new — a deep longing written on Lady Caroline’s magnificent features.  The strength of it, and the question in it, crossed the distance between them.  Are you the one? her longing asked.  Are you the one who can bring what I need?

Banbridge was still talking.  The amber lady raised her fan to hide her lovely mouth from view and turned away once more to face her little friend.  The movement denied him his inspiring view of her eyes, but flashed the lovely curve of one golden shoulder.  Philip found his silk breeches had grown suddenly and uncomfortably tight.  When had he last felt so much desire from one glance across a room?  Had he ever?

Miss Rayburn was pulling her friend away from Lewis, gesturing to some other acquaintance, real or pretended.  Philip felt an instant and deep liking for the little English Rose.  The amber lady took her leave of Banbridge with a bow of her head that was polite, and nothing more.  As she let herself be moved away, he could see her eyes still glancing about her.  Philip frowned.  Was it his imagination, or did she now look the least bit frightened?

Then, her gaze lit upon him.  Philip felt himself smiling at once.  Yes, my unknown lady, I am still here, he thought toward her.  I am waiting for you and I do bring what you need.

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