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Authors: Diane Farr

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ut of the question.

Malcolm rubbed his chin, frowning.
empting as it sounds. My father would be furious, in his own subtle way.

He straightened, animated by a new thought.

s bad enough that the family is hanging about, but did you know we

ve got outsiders here as well? Ghastly. You

ll meet them in a minute, I daresay. The Ellsworths. They

re very old friends, but this is the wrong time to fill the house with people whom Natalie doesn

t know. And then, to top it off, Lady Ballymere and her daughter landed on us

complete strangers, at least to Natalie and me

and we

re stuck with them as well.

Derek had spent the better part of an hour mentally preparing for this moment, when someone would mention
. Still, he had to consciously relax his shoulders to keep his tension from showing.

s odd,

he said casually.
hat brings those two here?


Malcolm shrugged.
pparently Lady
was invited by Hannah, God alone knows why. You

ll remember Hannah, Derek. Arthur

s middle daughter. The two eldest married last year and the two youngest aren



yet, so Hannah is the young lady of the family these days. At any rate, once she invited Lady
, Lady Ballymere had to be included. And now they mean to stop here until the roads improve.

His voice had gone very dry.
ince the roads are generally abysmal in England, no one can fathom how long their visit might last.

ell, the roads
in bad shape at the moment,

Derek admitted.
can vouch for that. But you

re right; even in the best of conditions, one never knows when a sudden downpour will render the roads impassable. What

s their game?



s their true reason for coming here? If you know.

Derek realized, too late, that his tone sounded unnaturally urgent. Malcolm looked mildly surprised.

s a strange question. Do you think they have some ulterior motive?

The answer was
but Derek could not say so without opening a can of worms. While he wrestled with how to reply, Pippa suddenly began squirming.

she demanded. Derek obliged, and she scampered off to clutch at her mother

s ample skirts.

The door was opening again. Derek

s nerves jangled briefly, anticipating

s entrance, but subsided when Malcolm

s older brother, Arthur Chase, Lord Grafton, entered with Lady Grafton. Three of their five daughters trailed in their wake. Directly behind them came several persons whom Derek did not recognize. His interest piqued, he studied them intently. These must be the Ellsworths

the hapless targets of

s greed.

Sir Peter was a genial-appearing soul. Lady Ellsworth seemed pleasant as well. The son, however, was the member of the party that irresistibly drew Derek

s eye. He was younger than Derek had thought he would be

and utterly unremarkable. Modest of height, modest of dress, he had a slightly pompous way about him that added nothing to his consequence. He wasn

t ugly. He was simply

Derek felt slightly let down. He had hoped to find something spectacular about John Ellsworth. Whether he had anticipated spectacular loathsomeness, such as Filey had had, or spectacular worthiness, he hardly knew. But
Nothing whatsoever stood out about Mr. Ellsworth. In fact, the chap was downright muffin-faced.

Apart from his wealth, was there anything about Mr. Ellsworth that might honestly attract a female? Especially a female of

s radiant beauty? Derek burned with unholy curiosity. As soon as he decently could, after greeting Lord Grafton and his family and making his bow to Sir Peter and Lady Ellsworth, he went to shake John Ellsworth

s hand. He was determined to engage the fellow in conversation. He was a little ashamed of the impulse that drove him, but he could not resist.

Mr. Ellsworth

s face was round and his hands were soft. He was so much shorter than Derek that Derek could see where, notwithstanding his youth, Mr. Ellsworth

s hair was thinning at the crown of his head. Still, he seemed a harmless sort of chap. He beamed up at Derek in a vague, good-natured way upon making his acquaintance.

hittaker, isn

t it? Ah de do? They tell me you

re Lady Malcolm

s brother.

es, that

s right.

ell, well. Daresay she

ll be glad to have a familiar face about.

hope so.

Derek cudgeled his brain to think of something to say.
understand you live in Derbyshire.

Mr. Ellsworth perked up.
es, that

s right. D

you know Derbyshire?



There seemed to be nothing more to say. Mr. Ellsworth hooked his thumbs in his waistcoat and rocked on his heels, humming under his breath.

ou a sporting man, Mr. Ellsworth?

h? Oh


not much. I

ve been known to take a rod out from time to time. Bit of an angler, you know.

He illustrated his words with a helpful casting motion, to prevent misunderstanding.

s the fishing good in Derbyshire?

olerable. Tolerable.

He rocked again, humming.

t get out as often as I would like,

he added at last.

The conversation ground once more to a halt. Derek opened his mouth to try again, but the drawing room door opened and he made the mistake of glancing up.

Whatever words he had been about to say died on his lips. His brain seemed to disconnect from his body and float up to the ceiling. There his wits hovered, out of r
each, while he gaped like a hap
less idiot below.

The sight of her
caused him
actual, physical pain. It was as if Cupid

s evil shadow had arrived, firing arrows dipped in poison. How could a man harden his heart against such beauty? The answer was, he couldn

t. All he could do was stand his ground while the arrows hit home, one by one by one. A quiverful of anguish, aimed unerringly at Derek

s bosom. He could almost hear their stinging onslaught:
Ping. Ping. Ping.

He dragged his eyes from the vision that was
and forced himself to concentrate, however dazedly, on the woman who entered with her. This must be Lady Ballymere. She was a slim, pretty, nervous-looking woman, as high-strung and graceful as a thoroughbred mare. As she glided into the room, she gave a rather artificial-sounding laugh.

ear me! We always seem to be the last to arrive. I hope we have not kept you waiting, Your Grace.

ot at all, Lady Ballymere,

said the duchess placidly.
e have still several minutes before the hour strikes. Are you acquainted with everyone here, I wonder? I think you may not have met Mr. Whittaker; he has only arrived this afternoon.

Lady Ballymere turned to Derek with an overly bright smile.
o, I don

t believe we have met.

The duchess extended her hand, indicating that Derek should step forward.
ray allow me to introduce you. Lady Ballymere, this is Lady Malcolm

s brother, Derek Whittaker. Mr. Whittaker, Lady Ballymere.

Derek managed a creditable bow and said the expected phrase.
our servant, my lady

What a blessing social rituals were. At times of crisis, they were invaluable. No need for rational thought; one simply moved and spoke as one had moved and spoken a hundred times before.

Lady Ballymere

s sharp gaze flicked over Derek. Her smile, already patently false, cooled even further.
ow do you do?

she said coldly.

This was so strange that Derek

s befuddled wits gathered and focused. Lady Ballymere was evidently taking him in dislike. He could not imagine what he had done to offend her. Nothing whatsoever, it seemed, since he had never laid eyes on her until this moment.

It occurred to him that this must be where
had learned her manners. His lip curled in cynical amusement.

The duchess, oblivious to the host
ility gathering in the air around
her, gestured toward
, may I present Mr. Whittaker?

had stayed in the shadows near the door. Now she moved quietly into the light.
hank you, Your Grace, but Mr. Whittaker and I have already met.

She paused. Derek wondered whether she would acknowledge meeting him in London. Evidently she would not. She continued with,
e very kindly escorted me back to the house today, after my mare cast a shoe.


The duchess looked from one to the other. Derek had no idea what, if anything, his expression conveyed; he could feel a muscle jump in his jaw as he tried to appear impassive.
gave nothing away. She stood with eyes downcast, detachedly studying the carpet. He envied her her poise.

ell, that was highly fortunate,

said Her Grace, with her customary calm.
am sorry to hear that your mount went lame. So distressing! I shall send word to the stables that they must be more careful. I

m glad you were not hurt, my dear.

hank you, Your Grace.

Lady Ballymere was still watching Derek through slightly narrowed eyes.

twas monstrous kind of you to take my daughter up in your carriage, Mr. Whittaker.

She did not sound grateful. She sounded highly suspicious. Nettled, Derek gave her an urbane smile.

Twas even kinder than you think it was, Lady Ballymere, since I had no carriage. We had to share a horse.

He had hoped, uncharitably, that his words would annoy her. But the effect was more than he had bargained for. Lady Ballymere

s eyes widened in momentary shock

and, he could have sworn, fear. She shot a look at
that he could not interpret, then turned back to him.

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