Waltzing with the Wallflower(4)

Looking heavenward, Ambrose cursed and closed his eyes before he answered. “This one. The Earl of Hawthorne.” The moment the words were free of his lips, the chill that plagued him earlier returned with a vengeance. Ignoring the feeling and the nagging need for caution that accompanied it, he took a step towards the girl, all the while knowing that within moments the name on everyone’s lips would be Cordelia.

Chapter Two

The Lady

Cordelia was miserable. Her aunt and uncle insisted on sponsoring her return to London. After seven years of indentured servitude, however, she was grossly unprepared for societal expectations. Yet here she stood, pushed aside by the crush and trying desperately to blend in with the wall behind her.

Since her debut four weeks ago, she attracted only one man’s attention. Sir Bryan had been following her far too closely, and though she knew she should be grateful for his interest, the man smelled like a medieval knight. Any time he was near, her eyes watered and she fought to keep her stomach from lurching. Cordelia found herself hiding from him and from every other man in the hall.

Unfortunately, the corner she chose for her hiding place was also the home to several indoor plants, which offered some lovely camouflage to match her dress, but when she backed into the foliage, her dress snagged and she was stuck fast. Mortified, she looked across the ballroom, desperate that no one would be the wiser to her plight. She scanned the room, and then froze when she noticed three men tilting their heads in her direction. It was just her luck that the very three men staring at her had the power to destroy her marital chances with one word.

Not that her chances were enviable now. Her family was steeped in scandal. She hadn’t been trained for London Society, and at one and twenty years of age she was not highly sought after company. Even merchants’ daughters turned their noses up at her misfortune.

It didn’t matter that her family was titled. Her father’s bad investments and his insatiable taste for gambling had driven them to the poor house, and as the only child, Cordelia was forced to bear the burden of repaying his debts.

She stared down at her skirt and struggled to free it from the branch with one hand. Even the small movement brought heat to her cheeks, and she hoped no one would notice her predicament. The last thing she needed right now was attention. Turning her focus to the snag, she tugged gently, trying to draw as little notice as possible.

“May I be of some assistance, m’lady?” A rich baritone startled her from her task and her head jerked up to ascertain who was speaking to her. She had been introduced to only one man present at this ball, and surely she would have sensed his approach long before he was close enough to engage her in conversation.

She recognized him in an instant. It was one of the well-known Benson twins. She dared not look long enough to determine which. They were nearly identical, and Cordelia had heard the only way to tell one from the other was by the length of his hair. Unfortunately, his unexpected notice of her brought an immediate mortification constricting in her throat and burned into her neck and cheeks. What was he doing over here? Why was he speaking to her?

“No!” she yelled then remembered herself. “Uh, no. Thank you, my lord.” She focused on her skirt while working frantically to free it from the entanglement.

His attention meant everyone in the room would also be staring at her. The warmth in her cheeks spread to her ears. If only she could melt into the marble floor and disappear.

When a large gloved hand reached around her and twisted the skirt free from the branch, brushing her hand as it did so, she retracted hers quickly with a gasp. Her gaze darted to his and to the floor again. Her words tangled in her throat and tripped over one another on their way out of her mouth. “I’m sor— Thank y—I mean, pardon me, my lord.”

“Not at all, m’lady. Glad to be of service.” Cordelia dared not speak again for fear of humiliating herself further. Undoubtedly another mess of undecipherable utterances would only speed her already determined fate as an old maid. So she did the only thing she could think of. She spun on her heel and fled, weaving in and out of the throng of debutantes, having no real direction until she caught sight of her aunt sitting among the other matrons.

The sea of debutantes began to part as if she were being led by Moses himself. Cordelia realized she failed in her effort to escape. Fear gripped her, making it impossible for her to look up. She kept her gaze on the path before her and made a beeline to where her aunt waited, imagining she could feel the heat from the man following close behind her.

As she neared her sponsor, the woman’s eyes widened in recognition and a patronizing smile spread across her red lips. She did not return Cordelia’s gaze but rested hers instead on the man behind her.

“Lord Hawthorne, so lovely to see you again,” she crooned with a low curtsy, dropping her fan in a most inappropriate fashion.

“Lady Trowbridge,” he said then reached for her hand and kissed it chastely. “How do you fare this evening?” Cordelia peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. His brown wavy hair hung unfashionably long, teasing the edge of his collar. That would make him the elder of the two men, the Earl of Hawthorne, though both men were regarded highly by the bulk of the ton. What could he possibly want with her?

She wasn’t so daft as to believe she would be of interest to anyone other than Sir Bryan, the stench of Cumberland. Which would leave only the man’s pure morbid curiosity.

Rachel Van Dyken &'s Books