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Authors: Diane Farr

B006DTZ3FY EBOK (4 page)

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es, sir,

said Derek woodenly.
hank you, sir. But my family

s estate
been left in a havey-cavey way. I shan

t inherit. My brother

s holding the reins.

He smiled wryly.
nd he and his wife are already setting up their nursery.

a. Expecting, are they?

Lord Stokesdown looked properly sympathetic.

t heard.

nd there

s one other small obstacle to courting Ballymere

s daughter.

Since he was baring his soul, Derek supposed he might as well bare it all.

s a Beauty.

Lord Stokesdown

s look of sympathy deepened.
ear me. A Beauty. Well, well. Her family

s likely to be ambitious, then. High expectations and all that.

es, sir.

ell, lad, I wouldn

t get my hopes up,

said his lordship bluntly.
ut you

re a good-looking boy, and you

ve a pleasant way with you. Engaging manners and so forth. Never know but what the chit may lose her heart to you, eh? And Ballymere may have modern notions, for all we know. Ready to let the daughter choose, rather than marry at his bidding.

es, sir. That is my hope.

Lord Stokesdown seemed ready to turn the subject, but suddenly he paused, an arrested expression seizing his features.

he muttered again.
ood God. Never tell me
He halted in mid-sentence and bent a piercing look upon his secretary.
hope you haven

t formed a
Fitzwilliam. If you have, heaven help you.

felt a frisson of alarm
ow so, sir?

hen you

Lord Stokesdown gave a queer sort of groan.
evil take the boy! He

s fallen for the Frost Fair.

He shook his head mournfully.

ll never win her, lad. She

s the coldest wench in England.

He must have seen the affronted astonishment crossing Derek

s face, for he hastily added,
f the reports are true, that is. I

m not acquainted with her.

ell, I am, my lord,

said Derek stiffly.
little. And

did you say something about a Frost Fair? What is that supposed to mean, if you please?

Lord Stokesdown coughed.
ou haven

t heard that? Well. No wonder. It

s a pity you haven

t, for it might have given you warning.

His expression was not unkind, but his brows were knitted with concern.

t know who started it, my boy, but that

s what everyone calls her.

Derek began to feel genuinely angry.
should like to know why anyone would call her that, my lord. It seems unjust.

ell, well, don

t poker up. The wags always bestow nicknames on the latest beauties, you know. Sometimes they stick, and sometimes they don


He studied Derek, the concern in his sharp eyes deepening.
his one stuck,

he added gruffly.
o I warn you, Derek. The soubriquet may sound silly to you

most of

em are silly

but it would not have caught fire, had it not seemed apt to a great many people.

An explanation suddenly occurred to Derek. Relief shot through him.
erhaps the nickname refers to her appearance,

he suggested.
er coloring is extremely fair.

ell, I daresay that

s part of it. For your sake, I will hope it

s the largest part,

said his lordship, still frowning.
ut that

s not what one hears. I

ll go to this absurd ball, and I

ll take you with me. But I

ll be candid with you, lad


m hoping you meet
a lady
who will drive the Frost Fair from your thoughts. I

m a busy man, and I can

t afford to have my secretary driven into a decline.

Derek laughed out loud.
o fear of that, sir. Is that her reputation? That she drives healthy young men into declines?

But Lord Stokesdown did not join Derek

s laughter.
t is,

he said grimly.
o guard your heart, boy. Now, what about that letter to Sheringham? Do I sign it or not?

And he briskly returned to business.

Derek dressed for the embassy ball with greater care than he had ever dressed for anything, feeling grateful that the prevailing mode did not require men to deck themselves with jewels,
, or fabrics threaded with gold. Fifteen years ago, he could never have afforded this masquerade. Tonight, however, he looked every inch the gentleman and would be dressed as gorgeously as any man present; beautifully cut broadcloth and clean linen were the order of the day. A waistcoat turned out in a modest, but elegant, brocade was as far as he need go to flaunt his supposed social standing.

He stared hard at the mirror when he was done, then gave a wry nod.
t will do,

he muttered.

He looked prosperous enough to pass as Lord Stokesdown

s son…
to those who did not know his lordship

s family. Was that cheating? He hardly knew. After all, he didn

t intend to
about his prospects. The Polite World was full of purse-pinched gentlemen, many of whom had little more than Derek had.
ll policy

s fair in love and war,

he reminded his reflection sternly, and picked up his hat.

The first ordeal, throughout which Lord Stokesdown grumbled under his breath, involved standing in a long line to pay their respects to the ambassador and a string of other dignitaries. When a gorgeously wigged and liveried person bawled,
he Earl of Stokesdown! Mr. Whittaker!

Derek stepped forth and bowed as if to the manor born. As far as he could tell, no one cared or questioned who the young man at Lord Stokesdown

s elbow might be. Lord Stokesdown had seen fit to bring him; that was apparently enough. Amazing.

The rooms were very crowded. It was just such a gathering as Derek would have relished

had he been privileged to observe it, rather than participate. As it was, enjoyment was not first among his emotions. Nerves on the stretch, he prowled along the edges of the ballroom, surveying the crowd. His
was nowhere to be seen among the shifting knots of smiling strangers.

The orchestra was tuning up, barely audible above the din of chatter. The ball would soon begin. Derek hovered at a discreet distance from the entrance to the room and kept a weather eye on the doorway.

She soon appeared on the raised threshold, as he knew she must. Derek felt his breath hitch. She was dressed similarly to a dozen other girls in the room, but somehow the effect was entirely different on
. The other females looked well enough, draped like so many Greek statues

was Aphrodite in the flesh. Her head held regally high, her white shoulders sloping elegantly, light seeming to ripple along the crown of her flaxen hair, she wore the clinging gauze with graceful confidence. She came in with a group of others who clustered round her, but Derek cou
ld not have said who they were. H
e had eyes only for

Again, she seemed to immediately feel his gaze touch her. Her lovely he
ad swive
led and her blue eyes went unerringly to his. This, Derek thought groggily, must be what the ancients meant when they spoke of Cupid

s arrows. He felt the point slam home in a flash, fairly rocking him back on his heels. Super-aware of her, he saw the quick rise and fall of her breath

but once, and once only. She immediately mastered whatever emotion had shaken her. Her eyes slid away from Derek as she returned her attention, with a visible effort, to her companions. And then, arm in arm with another lady, she drifted down into the ballroom and away from him.

What the deuce

! This was carrying discretion a little too far.

Piqued, Derek started to muscle his way through the crowd toward her. He soon found himself at the rear of a jostling line of men, elbowing each other genially out of the way as they jockeyed for position near the two ladies. There was a great deal of laughter and good-natured ribbing taking place, but Derek wasn

t feeling particularly good-natured. He hung back, struggling to quell the outrage he felt at having to wait his turn.

The chap next to him gave him a friendly nudge.
say, which d

you fancy? The Incomparable Isobel, or the Frost Fair?

Derek stared at him.

hich d

you fancy?

the young man repeated patiently.

t care which of

em I dance with. Don

t mind claiming the Frost Fair if it

s the Incomparable you like, or vice versa. By the time we get near enough to speak, most of their dances will be spoken for, y

know. So if you do fancy one above the other

Something like horror tied Derek

s tongue for a moment. But surely, he reminded himself,
would save him a dance. She all but
him to come here tonight. He would not be here otherwise. He forced a smile.
ll take my chances,

he told the fellow next to him.

But when he stepped into the inner circle, so close to
that he imagined he could feel the heat of her body, she still did not acknowledge him. She stood like the statue she resembled, as lovely and perfect as marble

and as lifeless. Her gaze was fixed on, apparently, the opposite wall of the room. What on earth was the matter with her? The girl they called Incomparable Isobel was a lively brunette whose chatter masked

s silence

but as Derek was focused entirely on
, her silence seemed louder to him than Isobel

s merry prattle.

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