So it seemed only fair, when she learned she had been deceived into breaking her own long-ago engagement to Sinclair, Duke of Rochford, that she now help him find the perfect wife. Of course, Francesca was certain any spark of passion between them had long since died — her own treatment of him had seen to that. The way Sinclair gazed at her or swept her suddenly into his arms… well, that was merely practice for when a younger, more suitable woman caught his eye. But soon Francesca found his lessons in love scandalously irresistible — and a temptation that could endanger them both.
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She strolled along in her usual manner, pausing to compliment a dress here or flirt with one of her many admirers there. She smiled and talked and plied her fan deftly, a vision in ice-blue silk, her blond hair falling in a cascade of curls from an upswept knot.
But all the while, her dark blue eyes were looking for her prey. It had been almost a month since she had vowed to herself to find a wife for the Duke of Rochford, and tonight she intended to set her plan in motion. She had made all her preparations. She had studied the young unmarried women of the ton, and through careful research and observation, she had managed to whittle the number down to just three whom she felt suitable for Sinclair.
All three of the young ladies would be here this evening, she was certain. The Whittington ball was one of the highlights of the Season, and, short of dire illness, any marriageable young lady would attend. Moreover, the odds were that the duke would be there, as well, which meant that Francesca could set her scheme in motion.
It was time she began, she knew—past time. She had not really needed three weeks to sort out the possible brides for Rochford. There was only a rather small number of girls who could qualify to become his duchess.
Even her good friend Sir Lucien had commented on her sudden preference for staying at home. She was not sure of the reason for it; everything just suddenly seemed dull and scarcely worth the effort. She had felt, in fact, a trifle blue-deviled—a result, she had decided, of the fact that Callie, who had been living with Francesca while they sorted out a husband for her, was now married and gone.
It was impossible to right matters, of course, but she could at least do the duke the favor of finding him a suitable bride. It was, after all, the thing at which she was most skilled. So she had come to this party tonight determined to begin the long dance of courtship on his behalf.
She strolled along the perimeter of the grand ballroom, a huge affair painted all in white and gold, floored with oak planks the color of honey, and lit by three glittering cascades of crystal chandeliers.
Several gold stands of thick white beeswax candles provided more light, as did the gold-and-white sconces along the walls. All this brilliance was softened by the huge bouquets of crimson roses and peonies standing in vases against the walls, and twining in garlands up the banister of the magnificent staircase to the second floor.
It was an elegant room, worthy of a palace, and it was rumored that only the formal ballroom made Lady Whittington willing to remain in this enormous and antiquated old mansion situated unfashionably outside Mayfair. Francesca threaded through the crowd to the staircase, intending to use the vantage point of the second-floor railing to locate the young women she was seeking in the massive ballroom below.
It had been here, after all, that she had ended things with the Duke of Rochford fifteen years ago. It had been here that her world had come crashing down. The flowers had all been white that night, she remembered, masses of roses, peonies, camellias and sweet-scented gardenias, accented by glossy greenery trailing from the high vases.
It had been a night of heady triumph for Francesca—she had made her debut only weeks before, and she was the undisputed Beauty of the Season.
Men had flocked around her, flirting and begging for a dance, making extravagant declarations of love and paying flowery compliments. And all the while she had hugged her secret to herself, giddy with love and excitement—until the footman had slipped a note into her hand. Now Francesca reached the second floor and took her place at the railing, where she could gaze down at the swirling dancers below. Things were much the same, she thought, as they had been that night so long ago.
The dresses had been different, of course, the colors of the walls and the decorations changed. But the glamour, the excitement, the hopes and intrigues, had not altered. Francesca gazed out at the crowd without really seeing them, remembering instead the past. Francesca turned and smiled at the blond woman. How good to see you. At twenty-seven years old, she had been a spinster—and determined to remain one—until last autumn, when Francesca, searching for a suitable spouse for the Earl of Radbourne, had realized that Irene was the perfect match for him.
The two women had spent their lives in much the same circle, so she had known the blunt, opinionated Lady Irene for years, but the two of them had not been friends until they had spent two weeks together at the Radbourne estate as Francesca sought to match the rough Lord Gideon to a well-bred wife. Now Francesca counted Irene as one of her closest friends. Irene looked out over the multicolored crowd of dancers. Though she and Irene had maintained a genteel silence regarding the matter, Francesca suspected Irene had guessed that her matchmaking efforts were more a question of survival than amusement.
Is there aught that I can do? I am just remembering…a time long past. Another party here. The pair had suited each other even better than Francesca had guessed; it seemed as if their love grew with each passing day. Irene let out a little giggle. That is why I fled to the balcony as soon as I stepped out of the cloakroom and saw that she had cornered Gideon. What about your vows? I shall have to tease him about that the next time we meet. We went to the theater together. He and Gideon are now friends, as well as cousins.
But surely you have seen Rochford, as well. It was his sister who was my friend, really, not Rochford. The guilty knowledge of how she had wronged him had weighed on her, and every time she had run into him, she had been pierced with guilt anew. She knew that she should tell him what she had found out, that she should apologize for her actions. It was craven of her not to. Yet she could not do it; her insides chilled whenever she thought of confessing and begging his pardon.
They had at least achieved a kind of peace with each other after all these years. Not friendship, exactly, but some thing close to it. What if she told him and it brought back his anger? She deserved that anger, she supposed, but her stomach twisted at the idea. So she had taken to avoiding Rochford whenever possible, staying away from a party if she thought he would attend it, and when she did see him, taking care not to go near him.
If they came face-to-face, as had happened once or twice, she had been stiff and awkward, escaping as soon as possible. Of course, that must end if she was to have any success finding a wife for the man. She could scarcely bring him together with one of his prospective brides if she continued to avoid him.
How was he unfair? I am not so tender a female as to wither under a rebuke. No one. She simply is not company I would choose to keep. Too high in the instep for me. The lady did seem a bit stiff.
But she was not sure that pride would necessarily be a detriment to a future duchess. I have never moved in government circles.
Do not tell me they have asked your help in seeking a husband. I was just…considering them. I have been thinking. On my own, as it were. You are matchmaking for someone who has not even asked you? Is this another wager with the duke? No, nothing like that. I had thought—well, there was someone I wronged once, and I had been looking to make it up to him. Who is the man? Of all her friends, Irene knew the most about her. She had never told anyone about what had happened between her and Rochford so long ago, but she suddenly found herself wanting to confide in Irene.
I am very sorry for what I did. You are talking about Rochford? Yes, it is Rochford, but you must promise me that you will not tell anyone. I promise. Not even Gideon. Rochford is your friend. What great wrong could you have done him? Her heart felt like lead within her chest, the long-dead sorrow hanging there still. But I have never heard of this. It must have been a huge scandal. Our engagement was secret. That scarcely sounds like the duke. He—he told me that he did not want me to be locked into an engagement during my first Season.
It was the summer I made my come-out, you see. He said that I might change my mind once I had had a Season.
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She strolled along in her usual manner, pausing to compliment a dress here or flirt with one of her many admirers there. She smiled and talked and plied her fan deftly, a vision in ice-blue silk, her blond hair falling in a cascade of curls from an upswept knot. But all the while, her dark blue eyes were looking for her prey. It had been almost a month since she had vowed to herself to find a wife for the Duke of Rochford, and tonight she intended to set her plan in motion. She had made all her preparations. She had studied the young unmarried women of the ton, and through careful research and observation, she had managed to whittle the number down to just three whom she felt suitable for Sinclair. All three of the young ladies would be here this evening, she was certain.
The Courtship Dance
The Matchmaker Series