He knew in an instant that she was different from every other woman in the ballroom.
Lord Geoffrey Fitzroy watched the lady as she paused in the arched doorway, a figure of perfect, self--contained calm beyond all the others, with their swirling spangled silks and too--bright laughter. She didn’t fidget or preen, the way women usually did while they were waiting to be announced to the company. She simply stood, and made standing look more elegantly fascinating than Geoffrey had ever dreamed possible.
“Who is that divine lady?” he asked his brother Harry, the Earl of Hargreave, who was beside him at the far end of the ballroom with the other gentlemen who’d rather drink than dance.
“Which lady?” Harry asked as he reached for a fresh glass of wine from the tray of a passing footman. “The room is filled with ladies.”
“The one in blue,” Geoffrey said, amazed that his brother needed more description. To him there was clearly only one lady among the scores in attendance who could be called divine, a term he had not used carelessly. Even at this distance, she was exceptionally beautiful, but not conventionally so, with pale skin and gleaming dark hair that she wore without powder. “There, in the doorway.”
“That’s Miss Serena Carew.” Harry turned toward Geoffrey, one brow raised with bemusement. “I cannot believe you don’t know her. Or rather, of her. No gentleman truly knows the distant Miss Serena Carew. None of us poor sots are worthy of her acquaintance.”
Geoffrey emptied his glass, setting it on a nearby sideboard. “Then that’s only because she has yet to know me,” he said confidently, smoothing his sleeves to spruce up his already-immaculate evening coat. “A lack I intend to remedy at once.”
“I thought you kept clear of unmarried ladies,” Harry said. “I recall you being quite firm on the subject of remaining a bachelor as long as was humanly possible.”
Geoffrey shrugged, his gaze still intent on the lady. “I’m not intending matrimony, Harry. I’m fully aware of how far I can go before her family begins demanding the banns be called. Exactly how far.”
“A moment, Geoffrey.” Harry took him by the arm to hold him back. “Take care with this one. You should know the lady’s story before you begin the chase. She’s old Allwyn’s granddaughter, and he guards her like a hawk with a favorite chick. That’s his sister, Lady Morley, with her now.”
“What of it?” Geoffrey smiled, nonchalant. It didn’t matter to him that she was the granddaughter of the Marquis of Allwyn, not when he himself was the son of the Duke of Breconridge. “That’s hardly enough to put me off.”
“There’s more,” Harry said. “Her father was employed by the East India Company, and she was born and spent her childhood in India.”
“Truly?” Geoffrey studied her with fresh interest. “Where? In Calcutta, with all the other English?”
“At first, yes,” Harry said, tapping his ebony cane lightly on the floor. “But the father had a falling out with the Company after his wife died. Resigned his commission outright. Turned Turk, as they say, and went off to make his fortune trading muskets and gunpowder for jewels and living like a pagan in the hills, complete with a harem of Hindi mistresses. I don’t know all the details—-I doubt Allwyn himself does—-but you’ll see soon enough how it has marked Miss Carew.”
Geoffrey’s curiosity grew as he continued to watch Miss Carew and her aunt. They had been announced to the company and were slowly making their way through the room, the older woman smiling and nodding and greeting friends. Miss Carew simply followed. It was as if she’d removed herself to another place entirely, a place she preferred far more to the gaiety and music of this ballroom. Geoffrey was not only attracted, he was intrigued. What could be more fascinating than a beauty with a mysterious past?
Not, of course, that he’d confess any of this to his brother.
“I cannot believe you’d call a lovely creature like that ‘marked,’ ” he said instead. “Surely you exaggerate, Harry.”
But Harry shook his head. “Judge the lady for yourself, and decide if I exaggerate. You’ll see soon enough that she is not at ease in company—-any company.”
Geoffrey grinned. “Fifty guineas says that she’ll dance with me.”
“Fifty?” Harry said, chuckling. “I’ll say a hundred, the surest wager I’ve ever made. I’ve never once seen that particular lady dance with anyone.”
“One hundred it is, then,” Geoffrey said, patting Harry on the shoulder. “Watch me proceed, brother, and be astonished. I’ll be collecting those guineas before the late supper.”
Geoffrey plunged into the crowd, determined to win both the wager and the lady. Based on experience, he’d every reason to be confidant, too. He was tall and handsome, with an easy, infallible charm that women of every age and rank found nearly impossible to ignore or resist. He’d begun beguiling his nursery maids in the cradle even before he could speak, and since then the results had been the same with every other female he encountered.
It was simply a fact: he liked women, and they liked him, very much. Why should Miss Carew be any different? In his estimation, Serena Carew was the most interesting and beautiful young lady in the room. It only made sense that she should be dancing with him.
There was, of course, the faint possibility that she would reject him outright, the way his brother had predicted. Some ladies did insist on the nicety of a proper introduction, even in a crush like this, but he’d risk it for the chance to speak to her first, without the aunt or anyone else interfering. Besides, he never tired of the intoxicating challenge of pursuit, the first step toward flirtation, passion, even seduction. Anything was possible.
She was turned away from him now, her back to him as he drew closer. Her shining dark hair set her apart from all the powdered heads around her, with the pale nape of her neck an elegant, vulnerable curve above the blue silk of her gown. She wore drop earrings and a necklace of diamonds and sapphires so large that on any other woman her age, the stones would surely have been paste. Yet on Serena Carew, Geoffrey knew they were genuine; nothing about her would be so blatantly false.
“Miss Carew,” he said when he was at last close enough that she’d hear him.
She did, and turned to face him in a single fluid movement. From a distance he’d seen she was a beauty, but he wasn’t prepared for the impact of that beauty with only a few feet between them. Her skin was golden ivory, her mouth full and red, her nose regal, and her brows perfectly arched, but it was her eyes that stunned him: almond--shaped and the color of clearest amber, deep--set and shadowed with mystery, and perhaps melancholy as well. Geoffrey wasn’t sure. Blast, he wasn’t sure of anything when he stared into eyes like that.
But to his chagrin, he clearly had not affected her the same way. There wasn’t a flicker of warmth in those golden eyes, nor encouragement, either.
“I do not know you, sir,” she said, a simple declaration.
He smiled his most winning smile, determined to thaw her chill, and not just because he knew his brother was watching.
“Lord Geoffrey Fitzroy,” he said with as much of a bow and flourish as he could manage in the crowd around them. “Your servant in every way, Miss Carew.”
She did not smile in return, nor did she so much as dip her head in acknowledgment of his higher rank. Instead she regarded him impassively, her expression not changing even a fraction.
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “If you are in truth the nobleman you profess to be, then you cannot be my servant. It is impossible for you to be both.”
“But I am,” he said, smiling still. With a different inflection, her words might have been banter, teasing and intimate, but she was making it clear enough that they weren’t meant to be anything but discouraging. Damnation, could she have somehow learned of the wager he’d just made with his brother? What other reason could there be for her to be behaving so coldly toward him?
“My name and title are mine through birth,” he said, “but you, Miss Carew, are the sole reason for my devoted servitude, and I—-”
“Lord Geoffrey, good evening!” exclaimed Lady Morley, joining them. “Why, Serena, my dear, I see you have already met one of the most notable gentlemen in the room.”
Lady Morley beamed at Geoffrey, her dark eyes sharp beneath her oversized, frizzled wig. Clearly she’d overheard, and clearly, too, she was determined to repair matters as best she could.
“Such a splendid gathering, Lord Geoffrey,” she continued. “I trust you are enjoying yourself?”
“I am, Lady Morley,” he said. He didn’t usually consider chaperones allies, but in this case, he’d take any help that was offered. “Especially now that I am in the company of two such lovely ladies.”
Lady Morley chuckled happily and fluttered her fan. It was the response that Geoffrey had hoped to win from Miss Carew, who continued to regard him with the same degree of dispassionate interest that she’d display toward a lower order of insect.
“Lord Geoffrey is the son of His Grace the Duke of Breconridge, Serena,” Lady Morley said, a not--very--subtle explanation for the younger woman, “and he is the younger brother of the Earl of Hargreave. His charm, of course, is all his own.”
Geoffrey smiled, charmingly. He’d heard this kind of explanation from mothers and aunts and older sisters so many times that he could interpret its true meaning perfectly: This handsome fellow may be a mere second son, Serena, but he’s one with his own fortune and therefore well worth your attention, and while the older brother may be married, his wife has only given him a daughter, so there’s still a chance for you to become a duchess.
Geoffrey hoped that Miss Carew interpreted the message this way, too. “I see the musicians are returning to their chairs,” he said, bowing toward her, “and the next set of dances will be beginning shortly. Will you honor me with the pleasure of a dance, Miss Carew?”
“Of course she would,” Lady Morley swiftly answered for her. “Serena, dance with Lord Geoffrey.”
“No!” protested Miss Carew with haste, and almost alarm. “That is, you know I do not dance, Aunt, and I—-”
“Nonsense,” Lady Morley said briskly, the merest hint of admonition in the word. “You dance like an angel, my dear. I insist. Go, take your place with Lord Geoffrey among the other couples whilst room remains on the floor.”
Still Miss Carew hesitated, her unexpected reluctance an unflattering challenge to Geoffrey. Perhaps she truly did dance like a goose. A beautiful face was no guarantee she’d be light on her toes. But for the sake of that beautiful face, as well as for the wager—-he could practically feel his brother’s gaze in the middle of his back—-he was determined to persevere.
“One dance, that is all,” he said softly, coaxing, and holding his hand out to her. “I ask for nothing beyond that.”
“Very well.” With a sigh she looked down, avoiding his gaze, and carefully placed her hand in his palm. “One dance and no more.”
“One dance, then,” he repeated. He closed his fingers around hers to lead her toward the floor. Her hand was cool and soft, as reserved as the rest of her, which did not surprise him.
“I must apologize for my aunt, Lord Geoffrey,” she said. “She can be unconscionably forward where I am concerned. Pray do not feel any obligation to dance with me.”
“There is no obligation, Miss Carew,” he said firmly, and just as firmly pulled her along until they stood facing each other, waiting for the other dancers to take their places in line. “When we are better acquainted, you will realize that I seldom, if ever, do anything I don’t wish to do. I’m stubborn that way. I wished to dance with you, and now I am, and I only hope that you will come to find the experience enjoyable as well.”
Before she could answer, the gentleman at the head of the line loudly announced the dance’s name: Lady Randolph’s Frolic. At once the musicians began to play, and Geoffrey had no choice but to bow and begin leading Miss Carew through the steps. The dance was a rollicking country reel that was complicated to follow, and offered no opportunity for further conversation. All that Geoffrey could do was smile, and admire Miss Carew as she danced.
It was impossible not to. She was dressed in much the same fashion as the other ladies, and it was clear that beneath her blue silk gown, her slender figure wore the whalebone--stiffened stays and hoops that were required for every proper English lady.
But she didn’t dance like an English lady. Not at all. Oh, she followed every step with a precision that would make her dancing--master proud, her back straight and her head held high. Yet there was a sinuous grace to her movements that could never be learned in any London drawing room, nor would it be entirely proper there, either. Her amber eyes lost their sadness and sparkled, and her lips parted and gradually began to smile with pleasure. The slight dip and sway to her hips, the arch to her wrists and arms, the way she unconsciously framed the rising swell of her breasts with every gesture—-all of it was innately seductive, and the fact that she seemed entirely innocent of the effect she was creating only made it all the more enticing.
Geoffrey couldn’t look away, and neither could any of the other men around them. He couldn’t recall a dance that was over and done so swiftly, nor another that he’d wished would never end.
“Mercy,” she said breathlessly, pulling free of Geoffrey’s hand to draw her fan from her pocket. She spread the blades with a single sweep and began to fan her still--flushed cheeks. Belatedly she remembered to curtsey, her fan still in her hand.
“I thank you, Lord Geoffrey,” she said as she rose. “If you please, I should like to return to my aunt now.”
He’d won his wager with his brother. He’d had his dance with Miss Carew. He’d made every other man in the room envious. He’d no reason not to do what she asked, and lead her back to her aunt’s side. But instead he stood before her, oddly off--balance and incapable of doing what he should or what was expected.
“If you please, Lord Geoffrey,” she said again, uneasily this time. She was already composing herself, withdrawing back into being that proper English lady.
And he did not want to let her go.
“Another dance,” he said, reaching for her hand.
She pulled away, shaking her head. “I agreed to only the one dance, Lord Geoffrey.”
“You can’t deny that you enjoyed yourself,” he said. “You do indeed dance like an angel.”
She shook her head again and closed her fan. “If you’ll excuse me, Lord Geoffrey.”
“Then come walk with me in the garden,” he said with all the charm he possessed. “The moon is full and the stars are bright.”
She blushed, gathering her skirts with one hand. “Forgive me, but I must return to my aunt directly.”
“Kāyara,” he said, smiling still as he called her a coward in Hindi. He hadn’t planned to say that; it simply came out.