Annabelle frowned. “But Lord Devereux left for Wales about an hour ago.” She had seen him climb aboard the travel coach looking confusingly stone faced.
His brother, however, had not yet returned to Claremont.
A frisson of anticipation traveled up her spine.
“Ye gods, please let that dress fit,” she said, and abruptly came to her feet.
* * *
Claremont’s reception room was abuzz with the chatter of a few hundred people ready to revel and dance. Jewels and champagne flutes shone softly in the muted light. A far cry from a country dance, this, a veritable sea of unfamiliar pale faces. Glances strayed her way, raking over her like fingers. “Look. It’s Celeste,” a lady said. “No, I am certain the gown is all Celeste . . . but who is she?”
I’m the woman who wears a Celeste sans undergarments.
The gown’s silky skirt had been too filmy for drawers; it clung like a skin to the thin underskirt. The feeling of nakedness was compounded by the snug, low-cut bodice that presented the tops of her breasts with rather dramatic effect. And apart from the lace trimmings on the flounces of the small train, there were no adornments to attract attention away from, well, her. The woman in the mirror had looked like a wealthy, fashionable stranger. Like she had every right to attend an illustrious ball. Peter, her escort, had turned the color of a beetroot once she had descended the grand staircase.
“Annabelle.” Hattie emerged from the crowd on the arm of a handsome young gentleman with chestnut hair. She left his side and rushed toward her.
“How stunning you look,” she exclaimed, pressing a hand to her heart. “Oh my. Zachary,” she said, turning back to her escort, “isn’t she stunning? I’m awfully envious. Annabelle, may I present my brother, Zachary Greenfield.”
The young man’s brown eyes twinkled as he sketched a bow. “Miss Archer. You are as striking as a lotus flower and as graceful as a willow reed.”
The moment he and Peter began exchanging opinions on the brandy, Hattie linked her arm through Annabelle’s and pulled her aside.
“I told you,” she muttered, gesturing over her own dress. The cascade of bows and flounces swamped her pleasantly plump figure, their color somewhere between beige and yellow. “Apricot,” she groaned, “and these frothy layers—I look like a rice pudding.”
“You look lovely,” Annabelle lied.
Hattie gave her a speaking glance. “I’m sure my brother paid his friends to fill my dance card.”
At least Hattie had a dance card. She’d be watching people dance tonight. No nobleman could ask her for a turn without causing talk, and Peter had informed her that as a man of the church, he didn’t dance, and he had stammered but stood firm when she had tried to bargain for at least a quadrille. So she would stay planted on a chair like a magenta wallflower all evening.
Peter sidled up to her, offering his arm. “Shall we traverse to the ballroom, Miss Archer? I hear live reindeer are part of the decoration.”
The melodies of Vivaldi’s Winter drifted through the wide open wing doors. The ballroom beyond glittered cool and bright like an ice palace—crystal chandeliers floated below the wintry blue ceiling, sparking stars and rainbows. Silvery glints struck from the champagne chillers and tiered platters on the refreshment tables. A profusion of snowy white orchids cascaded down from the upper balconies.
The only thing that held her attention was the man greeting his guests by the entrance.
Her pulse sped up. An exquisite tension tightened her body all over.
God, but Montgomery was achingly handsome. His lean frame and austere face were perfect for the sharp, elegant lines of the black-and-white evening attire.
When it was her turn to greet him, Montgomery did a double take. For a beat, he was as still as the ice sculptures lining the walls. But she had seen his gaze dip and graze over the swells of her breasts, a reflex against which he seemed as helpless as the next man.
Faint color began tingeing his cheekbones. “Miss Archer.” His voice was clipped.
He was already turning to her escort. “Mr. Humphrys. Welcome to Claremont.”
For a moment, she walked on Peter’s arm blindly, feeling foolish. What had she expected? That words like graceful willow reed would pass Montgomery’s lips? Actually, yes. Apparently, she had begun thinking of him purely as a man with whom she shared a connection, and was hoping for affirmation. She blew out a breath. Gallic pride? Gallic delusions!
She stiffly lowered herself onto the velvet chair near the far wall where she’d be stationed for the night. Peter remained standing, craning his neck around the ballroom.
“I believe the reindeer were a rumor,” she snipped.
He blinked. “Of course.” He gave a little laugh. “I mean, it would have been quite outrageous, wouldn’t it, and impractical . . .”
She bit her lip. It was ill done of her to take her strange mood out on the man who was nothing but kind. Unlike Montgomery, who blew hot and cold. He was presently conversing with a grand older lady and a pretty girl in white, who was glancing up at him shyly now and again.
“The Countess of Wareham,” Peter muttered, following the direction of her gaze, “they say her daughter, Lady Sophie, is one of the potential candidates for the new duchess.”
Her throat constricted unpleasantly. “The new duchess?”
Peter looked back down at her. “The duke will remarry next year. May I bring you a sandwich?”
“Yes, please,” she murmured. She did not feel even the hint of an appetite.
* * *
The dance floor was soon busy with whirling couples who turned the air thick with an amalgam of perfumes and sweat. Hattie’s yellow-beige dress flashed in the crowd as Tomlinson spun her round in a quadrille. Peter Humphrys was lecturing her on red deer native to Wiltshire.
It was still two hours until midnight.
“Would you like another sweetmeat?” Peter’s eyes were on her, always on her.
“No, thank you.”
“Another sandwich, then?”
“No, thanks, the last one was quite filling.”
Montgomery wasn’t dancing. He was at the edge of the ballroom, hands clasped behind his back, talking to guests, too many of them women with debutante daughters in tow or men who looked eager to talk politics.
Another dance ended, and Hattie approached, her red hair frizzy. She was vigorously fanning her gleaming throat.
Peter swooped. “May I bring you ladies some refreshments?”
“Some of the pink champagne, please,” Annabelle said quickly.
The pink champagne bowl was on the other end of the ballroom.
“Your wish is my command,” the curate exclaimed, and flung himself into the milling crowd.
Hattie promptly took Annabelle’s arm.
“I have to tell you, Tomlinson has been most attentive,” she murmured. “In fact”—she meaningfully waggled her tawny eyebrows—“he has mentioned taking some fresh air on the terrace.”
“Do not go onto the terrace with him.” The words were out before Annabelle could take the sharpness out of her voice.
Hattie’s face fell.
“Just . . . don’t,” Annabelle repeated, softer now.
“But it’s in full view of the ballroom.”
“Even worse. Do you want to marry him?”
Hattie flinched. “Marry? Why, no. He’s not titled.” She surreptitiously eyed the young man, who was presently thumping Lord Palmer’s back and braying with laughter. “And he’s not exactly a Gabriel,” she conceded.
“Then you really do not want to be caught in a compromising position in full view of the ton.”
“No terrace. No alcoves. No dark, empty hallways,” Annabelle said. “Forgive me for sounding like a governess,” she added, attempting to make light of things.
“You do sound rather like Miss Mayer right now,” Hattie said, sounding like a very lovely, very rich girl who was pondering whether to take advice from a woman about two dozen steps below in social rank.
It stabbed like a little dagger between Annabelle’s ribs. “I’d rather you not get hurt,” she said softly.
Tomlinson had sensed that he was an object of discussion; he half turned and raised his champagne flute to them. With his shiny eyes and fluffy hair, he looked as threatening as a poodle pup.
He was still a man.
“Hattie,” Annabelle said. “Men . . . they sometimes do outrageous things when they find themselves alone with a lady.”
Hattie frowned. “My dear, I might not be as clever as you are in managing the gentlemen, but I assure you I know how to fend off an admirer.”
“And what if you don’t want to fend him off?”
Hattie’s eyes widened. “Are you implying I’d . . . let him?”
“No, no, not like that,” Annabelle said hastily, “but there are some gentlemen who will promise anything, and I mean anything, and unless you are perfidious yourself, it’s very hard to see him for what he is.”
Hattie’s mouth relaxed into a small smile. “But he can promise whatever he likes, can he not? As long as he doesn’t try to, well, you know”—she lowered her voice to a whisper—“kiss me.”