|Miss Frederica St. Claire and her New Season country cousin, Miss Isabella Breckenridge|
|Griffith, Duke of Riverton|
|Plane Trees in Berkeley Square ~ London|
One thing going for the Duke of Riverton is strolling with the cousins amid greenery, a definite plus for time with them. The one he has chosen has other interests, leaving the cousin who definitely doesn't want to include Griffith in the trail of men she is bringing for her uncle to concur with. I liked Frederica's urgent need for a rest, resulting in the continued walk with Isabella.
A scavenger hunt during the weekend gala planned by his mother, Griffith finds a treasure of his own. Tenacity brings him to several interesting developments as he tries to find out why he is being spurned in his attempts to courtship. I liked the concurrence of the ladies in Griffith's family in encouraging him in his selection.
EnJ*O*Y this excerpt from Kristi Ann Hunter's An Inconvenient Beauty ~ Prologue & Chapter 1
To the Sovereign of all,
who has a better plan for our lives
than we could ever imagine.
Eton College, Berkshire, England, 1797
The line between boy and man was never murkier than when a father died too soon, leaving his son to walk through the foibles of youth while shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood.
Though a part of Griffith, Duke of Riverton, knew that having to show his ripped paper to his housemaster wasn’t the worst thing that could ever happen, the eleven-year-old part of him seethed in anger. He fingered the tear in the top of his paper that meant the master teacher found his work inadequate. The head of his house was going to be angry.
Not as angry as Griffith was, though.
It would be better if he knew where to direct his anger. While some of it was definitely reserved for the group of upper boys who ruthlessly attacked Griffith and his friend Ryland, Duke of Marshington, there was a good bit directed at himself as well. Because of the ceaseless taunting, the snide mutterings of “As you wish, Your Grace” that rang in his ears until he heard it in his sleep, and the teachers’ delight in being able to discipline such high-ranking boys, Griffith was coming to despise the title he’d been raised to love and respect. Unlike Ryland, who had been all too pleased to obtain the title, since it meant his grandfather couldn’t torture him anymore, Griffith had adored his father and would have been more than happy not to be the duke.
He’d have given anything to be able to ask his father what he should do now, because what he wanted was revenge. The anger at the older boys, the teachers, and himself coursed through him, burning right through his normal, logical reasoning until all he wanted to do was prove that—despite his tender years—he was no one to be crossed, that he wasn’t a boy but a young man to be reckoned with.
The paper in his hand crumpled further as his fingers curled into a tight fist. He’d had very little time to work on his paper this week, given the several hours a day he’d had to help the groundskeeper as punishment for an escapade in the headmaster’s office. An escapade that he’d had no part in but the headmaster had been convinced he and Ryland had done.
Rearranging all the furniture was a fairly harmless prank, but the older boys had also riffled through the files, making changes to Ryland’s and Griffith’s marks, to make it look like they’d done it. Headmaster Heath hadn’t been pleased. Griffith’s hands were raw and his muscles hurt from the hours spent shoveling bat guano into the flower beds as fertilizer as well as from the additional household chores he’d been given.
Ryland was waiting outside the house, his arms crossed over his thin chest. Griffith towered over him, having grown enough in the past year to require having his trousers retailored twice and ordering new coats and shirts made. Another second-year boy nodded at them as he scurried into the house, not wanting to be seen with them and thereby become a target of the older boys.
“Did you find out who invaded the headmaster’s office?” Griffith shoved his already crumpled paper into his satchel.
Ryland nodded, lips pressed together. “The fifth years.”
Griffith nodded at the building behind Ryland. “From our house?”
“No. They were King’s Scholars.”
“I guess that takes care of your plan, then.” Secretly, Griffith was relieved. As much as his anger was driving him toward revenge, the idea Ryland had come up with while they shoveled manure yesterday made Griffith more than a little nervous. Sneaking into the upper boys’ room in one of the houses in town was one thing, but the King’s Scholars house was on campus.
“I say we do it.” Deep creases formed in Ryland’s forehead, causing a shadow to fall across his grey eyes. “If I hear ‘As you wish, Your Grace’ one more time, I’m liable to do something that will actually get me sent down from school.”
Griffith was inclined to agree. Though violence hadn’t been part of his life, even he was feeling the urge to hit something. The urge frightened him as much as the idea of sneaking into the King’s Scholars’ boardinghouse at night.
“I’m doing it. Tonight.” Ryland lifted an eyebrow. “Are you with me?”
Was he? He was fairly sure that his father wouldn’t approve. But his father had left him to figure things out on his own. And if Ryland did what he planned, Griffith was going to be blamed for it whether he was involved or not. Was it better to be falsely guilty or truly guilty? Either way he’d suffer the consequences. “I’m in.”
Thankfully, the trembling in his body didn’t reveal itself in his voice. He stuffed his hand down into his satchel and felt around for his paper, tracing his fingers along the edge until he could feel the tear in the top. It was his third in as many weeks. He’d come to school to learn, and that obviously wasn’t happening. No matter what he did, his life was at the mercy of the older boys, determined to have their own against a pair of young dukes while they could. Renewed anger rushed through him, trampling over his misgivings. He’d hold on to his paper until tomorrow. He might need the motivation tonight.
~*~Sneaking around the grounds of Eton at midnight was wrong.
Then again, so was making someone’s life miserable just because you could. If he tried really hard, Griffith could convince himself that teaching these older boys a lesson now would make them better men in the future. Wasn’t that what a duke was supposed to do? Lead the elite of England to be better?
Tension tightened his shoulders as he slipped into the darkened building behind Ryland. It was strange being on campus when everything was dark and quiet. It added to the sense of unreality. Was he really, finally, going to do something about his school difficulties? Ryland and Griffith had found each other early on, their mutual disdain for life at Eton bonding them quickly. Their first year had been horrible, with one of them still grieving the loss of his father and the other trying desperately to live down the reputation of his grandfather. Griffith had been able to convince Ryland and himself that things would be better if they just got through the first year.
But they weren’t.
If anything, things were worse. Now that there wasn’t a sanctioned way to make Griffith and Ryland do their bidding, the older boys were resorting to new and worse means of persecution.
After tonight, they’d think twice. Or at the very least, they’d stop saying “As you wish.”
“You have the paint?” Ryland whispered.
Griffith silently held up the can of red paint he’d bought in town. Ryland nodded and slid two brushes from his pocket. His other hand reached for the latch on the door of the fifth-year boys’ dormitory.
Sweat coated Griffith’s palms, making him clutch the paint tighter so he wouldn’t drop it. His chest felt like it was churning like the waters of the River Thames during a storm. Were they really going to do this? Somehow it didn’t seem right to slip in and face his enemies while they slept. But what else could they do? He couldn’t stand it if the year continued on the way it had started. And what would happen next year?
“Keep it simple,” Ryland said in a toneless whisper. Griffith wasn’t even sure he’d heard it so much as sensed what was being said by the shape of Ryland’s lips.
“Simple,” Griffith whispered back. He winced at the sound of his voice and decided to nod at Ryland instead.
Ryland nodded back. “We get in, paint As you wish, Your Grace on the backs of their shirts, and get out.”
A small grin touched Griffith’s lips. They’d think about the dukes every time they got dressed for the rest of the term, unless they wanted to explain to their parents why they needed new shirts.
It would be a reminder that he and Ryland had managed to sneak into their presence and could have done something much worse.
There was a certain biblical tone to the prank that appealed to Griffith and made him feel a bit like David facing down Saul, even if it was probably more like taking on Goliath.
“Remember—backs of the shirts,” Ryland whispered. “We don’t want them to violate dress code.”
At Griffith’s nod, Ryland eased the door open, pressing it tightly to the hinges so nothing squeaked.
They crept in, taking care not to make a noise in the silent room.
Griffith frowned. The room was too silent. He couldn’t even hear the boys breathing in their sleep.
The room was empty.
“Where are they?” Ryland whispered.
As if Griffith could possibly know the answer. “Should we do it anyway?”
Ryland nodded and the boys made short work of marking the shirts, a task made much easier by the fact that they only had to be quiet enough to avoid waking the boys in the other rooms.
As they eased back out of the dormitory, Ryland’s grin glowed in the moonlight. “Let’s find them.”
Griffith frowned. “Why?”
“Because whatever they’re doing is against school rules, and we can use it to convince them to leave us alone.”
“What we’re doing is against school rules.” Griffith rolled his eyes at his friend, wondering, not for the first time, if they would’ve gotten along with each other if they didn’t have a title in common.
“Then, we don’t let them see us.” Ryland pulled Griffith after him, running from shadow to shadow in search of the upper boys.
It didn’t take long to find them, huddled on the far side of the chapel, away from the dormitory, passing two bottles of pilfered liquor among them. Another two bottles lay on the ground, already emptied of their amber-colored contents. Two of the boys tried to stand up and promptly fell down on each other.
“Are they drunk?” Griffith whispered.
Ryland grinned. “Three sheets blown clear away by the wind, I’d guess.”
The boys were talking among themselves, occasionally forgetting that they should probably be quiet.
“Come on.” Ryland pulled Griffith around the corner.
“Because you’re bigger. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll hide behind you and do all the talking.”
And then Ryland was pushing Griffith into the group. Careful to stay in the deeper shadows in order to hide his face, Griffith staggered and Ryland spoke from behind him, slurring his words like he was one of the drunken group. Griffith’s heart pounded from fear but also a bit of excitement. He was the same size as some of these boys, despite the difference in age, and to walk among them unnoticed was a thrill.
“Care for a drink?” one boy slurred. “Toasting the fall of one of the young dukes.”
Another boy laughed until he hiccupped. “Saw him slip in the manure pile this morning.”
All the boys laughed.
Griffith angled his head until he could see Ryland’s shadow behind him. Griffith hadn’t fallen—that meant Ryland had. His determination to have his revenge tonight made a little more sense.
“Where’d you get the liquor?” Ryland asked.
One boy staggered to his feet, looking proud and unstable. “Headmaster’s office. Imagine how mad he’s going to be that those two upstarts broke in again.”
“How much better if he praised us while condemning them?” Ryland cackled and stabbed Griffith in the ribs, making him jerk his arms like a puppet. “We should do something no one would expect.”
“He’ll send us up!” one boy nearly shouted.
“Or make us prefects,” another said.
“This way!” Ryland said, lifting Griffith’s arm into the air. “He’ll remember us forever!”
The boys cheered until Ryland was forced to shush them through his muffled laughter. How could he be laughing at a time like this? Griffith was fairly certain his heart was about to explode and leave him in pieces all over the chapel wall.
“Lead them this way,” Ryland whispered in Griffith’s ear.
Griffith didn’t know what he was doing, but none of the boys seemed to notice when Ryland slid out from behind him and gestured for Griffith to follow him. Soon Griffith was leading his pack of drunk upper boys to the garden shed, where Ryland and Griffith had been reporting for punishment for the past week.
The smell of the large pile of bat guano hit Griffith as they approached and he thought surely it would be strong enough to knock some sense into the crazy band behind him.
But it didn’t.
Ryland nudged Griffith forward, directing the boys where he wanted them to go. Soon all of the boys were grabbing buckets of bat guano and staggering down to the field below the main college.
“What are you doing?” Griffith hissed as they led the brigade away from the garden shed with their buckets in hand. Occasionally Ryland gave out a slurred shhh and they’d talk a little softer.
“This will be even better than the shirts,” he whispered.
They returned to the field below the chapel, and the boys spread out with their buckets. In the chaos, Ryland came out of hiding, directing the boys where to spread their bucket contents and convincing them how proud the headmaster was going to be, how much he wanted a very special garden in the middle of the field. Griffith slid farther and farther back until he was pressed against the chapel wall, the cool stone rough against his fingers.
If he hadn’t been confident in his friendship with Ryland, Griffith would have been terrified by the abilities he was seeing. There was no question who was orchestrating the entire thing, but when it was all over, Griffith and Ryland would honestly be able to say they hadn’t spread a bit of guano.
One boy got sick. Another passed out, thankfully landing with his head outside of the spread manure.
It baffled Griffith, how the same boys who had been so cruel to them in the daylight were following Ryland’s orders with the enthusiasm of puppies. Occasionally Ryland would press a bottle into a hand, and the boy would take another swallow of liquor.
Ryland finally stood to the side, arms crossed and a sly grin on his face.
“We need to go. They’ll check our beds soon,” Griffith whispered in Ryland’s ear.
“Yeah,” he whispered back and then called the boys—the ones who were still standing anyway—into a circle. “We don’t want those pesky dukes to get credit for this, do we?”
The resounding “No!” was loud enough to make Griffith cringe and consider running for his house in town.
“Right,” Ryland continued, seemingly fearless about any chance of getting caught. “So we need to sleep right there on the edge of the field so that in the morning everyone knows who gets the credit.”
The boys enthusiastically piled over each other and found spots on the grass.
While the boys were settling in, Ryland grabbed an openmouthed Griffith and hauled him back up the hill. From the top Griffith looked down at the field. The letters were crude and uneven, but it clearly spelled As you wish. When they realized what they had been tricked into doing, combined with what he and Ryland had done to the shirts, those boys were going to be fighting mad.
Ryland and Griffith left the campus and crept through the streets of the darkened town until they got back to their house. They slipped through the doorway and pressed themselves against the wall as the head boy made his rounds. When he didn’t raise an alarm, they knew the bundles of blankets and pillows they’d left in their beds had done the trick.
Griffith slid into bed, surrounded by silence that seemed to press onto his chest until he wondered if he were somehow drowning without water. He’d never done anything like this before, and with the thrill came more than a bit of guilt. Now that the anger no longer coursed through his system, his father’s voice rang clearly through his head. This wasn’t how he or God would have wanted Griffith to handle the situation. Harmless pranks were one thing, but those boys were going to get into a heap of trouble.
Of course, his father wasn’t there. God had left Griffith on his own to figure out how to be a man, a duke, and he was trying to do it right. But was this really the best he could do?
~*~Griffith slept in fits and bursts, and when a yell ripped through the house the next morning, he felt as if he’d spent those few hours wrestling with his sheets instead of sleeping in them.
Shouts and curses could be heard up and down the street as boys spilled from their houses to run to Eton’s fields. Two first-year King’s Scholars were running from house to house, calling sentences that didn’t make any sense but letting everyone know something incredible had happened the night before. Griffith rode the excited wave of students, trying not to look guilty, praying he wouldn’t be sick.
There was already a crowd when Griffith, Ryland, and the rest of the boys from their house arrived at the field. Utter chaos reigned as the boys held their heads and tried to defend themselves against something they weren’t completely sure they even remembered. Ryland and Griffith were mentioned, with two boys swearing Ryland had convinced them to do it.
So the headmaster checked their shoes.
Griffith nearly swallowed his tongue as the man told him to lift one foot and then the other. He’d been working with the guano all week, but never in his own shoes. No one wanted the stuff tracked into the dormitories. He couldn’t remember if he’d stepped in any of it last night.
Lifting his feet didn’t faze Ryland, though. He managed to look somewhat resigned and a bit offended as his shoes were checked.
They were both clear, and the headmaster proceeded to lay into the boys with promises of beatings and punishments.
And he hadn’t even seen the liquor bottles yet.
One lay on the edge of the field, seemingly unnoticed by anyone but Griffith.
The aftermath of his evening escapades boiled around him, with the older boys getting hauled off, holding their heads and throwing accusatory looks at Ryland and Griffith. Unease clenched Griffith’s middle, making him glad that he had yet to eat breakfast.
If he’d taken more time to think about it, would he have followed Ryland’s lead? Griffith knew that, had the boys last night not been drunk, they wouldn’t have followed Griffith anywhere.
As much as he hoped the boys would now leave them alone, he wished there’d been another way. Surely they could have found a better way.
“I don’t get it,” Griffith whispered to Ryland as the boys were herded back toward their rooms to dress. “Why’d you make them do that?”
“Fertilizer.” Ryland grinned. “Fertilizer that soaked into the grass all night. Fertilizer that they’re never going to be able to clean up completely.”
He chuckled as he threw a hand on top of Griffith’s shoulder. “That field will read As you wish until those boys graduate. And they’re the ones who put it there.”
Griffith threw one last look over his shoulder. The older boys were still looking around with confusion and in pain. One held his head in his hands and looked one step away from crying. Boys that were supposed to be the best England had to offer, brought low by liquor and a quick-thinking, crafty lad.
As Griffith topped the hill, he made a vow to himself. His father had been the perfect duke, and Griffith had a lot to live up to. If he was learning anything this morning, it was that letting his anger drive him didn’t leave him confident and satisfied in the morning. He made a vow—to himself, to God, and to his late father—that he would never put himself in such a vulnerable position again. Never would someone or something else take away his control of his own actions.
He took one last look at the crudely written words on the field. As you wish. For the past year and a half it had been a slur, a derogatory term designed to get under his skin. But now it would be his strength. He would be in control. Always.
London, England, March 1815
While the limits of human ability prevented Griffith, Duke of Riverton, from being everything to everyone who depended on him for their livelihoods, he’d always assumed there was no limit to what he would do for his family.
His mother’s current request was more than stretching those limits. “No.”
“Miss Watters is a very particular friend of Lady Cressida. And as I am married to her father I feel obliged to ensure Cressida’s ball is a success in every way.” Griffith’s mother, Lady Blackstone, arched a brow in her son’s direction as he turned from his perusal of the crowd filling the ballroom. The former duchess may have voluntarily lowered her rank to countess when she remarried a few years earlier, but she had never released her position as matriarch of her family, despite the fact that they’d all reached adulthood.
It was a position Griffith respected. Not only did the Word of God command that he do so, but he’d seen what his mother had gone through to raise her four children, including teaching her ten-year-old son how to manage a dukedom. That respect did not, however, extend to breaking one of his personal social rules.
He looked away from his mother to note the girl in question—a plain young woman hovering near a doorway, her dress an unfortunate color that was remarkably similar to the ballroom wallpaper. Given her supposedly close relationship with tonight’s hostess, one would have thought the near-professional wallflower would have known to avoid that particular shade of rose. “If there is a true need for a member of our family to rescue Miss Watters from the wall—a position which I’m sure you know she takes up at every social gathering—there are other male members you can appeal to.”
Mother’s lips pressed together into a thin line. “They are married.”
Griffith slowly lifted his own eyebrow in a perfect imitation of his mother’s earlier expression. “I had no idea the institution affected a man’s ability to dance. No matter. Up to now they’ve shown remarkable resistance to whatever marriage-related malady might inhibit a man’s dancing talents. I’m sure they can hold it off for another night.”
His mother said nothing, though he could tell from the crinkles forming at the corner of her eye that she wanted to laugh. Almost as much as she wanted him to dance with Miss Watters. As he only danced with women he considered family, her laughter was the only desire he was inclined to grant. One more sardonic remark from him should send her over the edge.
“It is a comfort to know, however, that public scrutiny of my lack of dancing finesse will diminish once I’ve married. Until then I shall endeavor to plant myself among the married men on the rare occasion that I join a dancing formation with a sister or cousin. Perhaps then we shall all be equally bumblesome.”
A brief snicker sputtered between Mother’s lips. Her rare break in decorum was like a trophy to the one who’d done everything in his power to make his mother smile again after the death of his father. As always, though, she quickly contained the outward signs of her mirth. “Bumblesome?”
Griffith shrugged his shoulders. Their massive width, when combined with his considerable height, was one of the main reasons he didn’t perform at his best on a crowded dance floor. He was simply too large to maneuver through the steps with much grace, and bumblesome seemed the most accurate description of how he felt on the dance floor.
She sighed. “Very well, I shall ask your brother. Despite his marriage last year, he is still popular enough to draw notice.”
“And accomplished enough for the lady to actually enjoy her dance. If she is only to get one turn around the floor, let it be a good one.”
Cool daggers shot from his mother’s blue eyes as she glided off to find Griffith’s younger brother, Trent. He could have told Mother that she was going in the wrong direction, but as his primary objective was to remove her from his side, he kept his silence. By his count, he had to stay in the ballroom for two more dances before his absence wouldn’t draw comment. Over the years he’d perfected the art of being seen enough that everyone knew he’d attended but not so much that he was drawn into any interactions he’d rather avoid.
Such as dancing with a female who might even remotely be considered a marriage possibility.
“You can’t avoid it forever, you know.”
Griffith glanced to his left to find his good friend Ryland, Duke of Marshington. Their friendship had started at Eton, holding fast through years of change and upheaval. Now that the man had married Griffith’s sister Miranda, they were family as well. “You do.”
Ryland grinned, the slash of white teeth standing out against his darker-than-was-fashionable skin. “I’m married.”
With a tilt of his head, Griffith acknowledged the implications of Ryland’s true statement. “And where is my sister?”
The grin widened. “Dancing.”
Griffith swung his gaze to the rows of couples weaving in and out of formation on the dance floor. He could easily see over the surrounding heads, though sometimes his sister’s shorter stature still made her difficult to find. Within moments he’d located the familiar blond curls of the elder of his younger sisters. At that moment she was happily spinning around on the arm of Colin McCrae, Griffith’s other brother-in-law. His youngest sister, Georgina, stood next to them, waiting for her turn in the dance.
It was still a surprise to see the sisters voluntarily sharing space. The friendliness had only come about in the two years since they’d married their respective husbands. Those marriages had taken a great load off of Griffith’s mind. In truth, now that Trent had also settled happily into an initially awkward marriage, there wasn’t anyone left for Griffith to guide and watch over. There hadn’t been for many months now, but Griffith had put off acknowledging the fact.
“You really should consider taking a turn or two yourself, you know.” Ryland rocked forward on his toes and clasped his hands behind his back. Given that the man was a former spy and a master at blending in, the falsely innocent posture was obviously intentional.
Griffith knew better than to take the bait. “I shall ask Miranda for the next set.”
“She’ll turn you down.”
Two years of marriage had obviously not made the man an expert on his wife. Miranda would never deny her big brother. “She never has before.”
“She wasn’t limiting her exertions before.”
The two men fell silent as Griffith considered the implications of Ryland’s statement. Happiness and worry warred within Griffith. It was difficult for him to remember that Miranda was not his to protect anymore. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”
“Indeed they are.” Ryland nodded, one side of his mouth kicked up in a smirk. “We’ve a dukedom to provide an heir for, after all.” Grey eyes cut from the dancers to pin Griffith to the wall behind him. “You have one as well.”
Griffith didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t know if it was the fact that his childhood had been cut so short or the fear of having something so vulnerable dependent on him, but the idea of children frightened Griffith like nothing else. It was, however, part of his duty, and Griffith took his duty very seriously. His younger brother would certainly breathe easier when it was ensured that the title and holdings wouldn’t pass to him. Griffith had never understood Trent’s aversion to the title, except, of course, for the fact that Griffith would have to be dead in order for Trent to inherit.
That was a fairly decent reason not to want the title.
He looked to Ryland. “I’ve a plan.”
“You always do.” The last strains of the dance faded into the chatter of the ball’s attendees, and the couples dispersed while new ones took their places. By unspoken agreement the men waited for the music to drift back over the crowd before speaking again.
Ryland inspected his fingernails. “Dare I ask what this great marriage plan consists of?”
“Getting married.” Griffith had been formulating a plan for years. When he’d first hit London after graduating from Oxford, he’d marveled at the games society played. The scheming marriage-minded mothers and the calculating influence-craving fathers made a powerful counterforce to the desperate dowry-hungry sons and the fun-loving, attachment-avoiding bachelors. Somewhere in the middle, the debutantes drifted—each with their own level of mercenariness, but all with the same goal in mind. Griffith hadn’t wanted to deal with any of them.
Still didn’t want to deal with them.
His reprieve was fast disappearing, though, because Ryland had a point. Griffith needed an heir, and for that he needed a wife.
“Do you intend to follow the family tradition?”
Surprise at the question broke Griffith’s normally controlled countenance. “Of course.”
All of Griffith’s family, for as long as anyone could remember, had built their marriages on a strong foundation of love. His own parents had been possibly the most notorious of the lot. Just because Griffith was approaching marriage in a logical manner did not mean he had no plans to involve love in the equation.
The skeptical smile on Ryland’s face brought an extra stiffness to Griffith’s back. His plan was going to work. Watching his mother and siblings find love over the past three years had only assured him that his plan was a viable one, and he couldn’t resist the urge to rub it in Ryland’s face, given the other man’s chaotic journey to happiness. “Before my mother tried to steer me in an unsuitable direction tonight, I was narrowing down the candidates.”
Ryland coughed. “Candidates? And I can’t imagine your mother suggesting you socialize with anyone unsuitable.”
“My idea of suitable and hers do not always align.”
“Particularly since you’ve never seen fit to share your idea.” Ryland straightened his shoulders and settled in to observe the room. He was tall, but still a good two or three inches shorter than Griffith, and possessed the ability to look like something other than a hulking mountain with legs. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be intimidating if he wanted to. His face hardened from easy humor into serious concentration. “Your target is in this room, I assume, for you to have been contemplating a campaign.”
Griffith resisted the childish urge to roll his eyes toward the ceiling. “Target? Really, Ryland. We’re not stepping outside for pistols.”
“You called them candidates. I’m simply upgrading your status from prize to be won to the pursuer in control. Now, be quiet. I’m analyzing.”
Griffith waited. He leaned his shoulder against the wall behind him and crossed one foot over the other. Sweat trickled down his neck into his cravat. He hated ballrooms. They were always too crowded and too hot for a man of his size and stature to retain any sort of comfort. Normally he positioned himself near the terrace doors or an open window, but the unseasonably cold weather had prompted tonight’s host to close everything up tight. Right then Griffith would have welcomed a chilly breeze. Waiting for Ryland to make his guess wasn’t doing anything to relieve his tension.
Minutes passed. Another song began and ended. Was Ryland still analyzing, or was he simply torturing Griffith now?
“You want someone from the edge of the dance floor.”
Griffith had to admire the confidence of the man’s statement. Despite the accuracy of the remark, Griffith wasn’t willing to give in that easily. “You had a one-in-four chance of selecting the correct group of ladies. And as it is by far the largest of the groups, I’m hardly impressed.”
When the two men had attended their first balls right after graduating from Eton, they’d divided the unmarried women into four groups. The corner held the spinsters, while the walls included those whose social standing or lack of popularity kept them outside the action. The dance floor was for the most popular of women—Diamonds of the First Water, the Incomparables, the ones on whom everyone doted and who never seemed to be without a partner or two clamoring for the next dance. The edge of the dance floor, though, held most of the women. The women who danced sometimes but not always. They were popular enough but hardly fodder for the social pages.
Ryland cast a glance over his shoulder. “Anyone else in here—your own family included—would assume you wanted someone from the dance floor. You could certainly land one, if you wished. Even the lovely Lady Alethea.”
He could probably land anyone in this room, even if they were nearly betrothed. Young, single dukes weren’t exactly plentiful in England. Griffith had to concede Ryland’s point, however, and inclined his head to indicate his friend should continue his guess.
It was easy to spot the woman he’d mentioned. Lady Alethea was skipping her way through the dance with a wide smile on her face and strings of jewels in her dark hair.
It was also easy to see why most people, his family included, would assume he wanted someone like her. Everyone thought her the most sought-after woman among the marriage-minded aristocracy. Griffith’s interests lay beyond the benefits of a beautiful wife, though.
Ryland tilted his head and looked slowly around the ballroom, murmuring to himself. “She’s too attractive. Draws too much notice. Good family, but maybe a few too many of them. You don’t want them asking you for favors.”
Griffith forced himself not to fidget. It was remarkable how quickly Ryland was walking the lines of Griffith’s reasoning.
“She’s too new to London. You probably spent all of last year debating the merits of various ladies.”
“Not all of it,” Griffith grumbled. “I had to watch over the disastrous beginnings of Trent’s marriage, after all.” Fortunately, that had all worked out and Trent was now fully in love with his wife, but it had taken up a good bit of Griffith’s attention last Season.
Fewer than five more minutes went by before Ryland turned around and crossed his arms. “You’re not going to fall in love with her.”
Griffith raised an eyebrow and lowered his head until he was glaring down his nose at Ryland. The superior look that had sent more than one man into a cold sweat didn’t even make Ryland blink. “How do you know?”
“The same way I know whom you’ve chosen. I get the logic—really, I do—but she’s not what you need.”
The noise of the crowd ebbed and swelled around them as Griffith narrowed his eyes at the other duke. “You’re bluffing,” he finally said. “You want me to say the woman I’ve settled on because you don’t know who it is.”
“Oh, I know. But mark my words—she’s not the woman for you. You don’t need someone as boring as you think you are. And trust me, old friend, she will bore you.”
Miranda chose that moment to come bounding to her husband’s side, wide smile and flushed cheeks indicating how much she’d enjoyed her set of dances.
Griffith nodded to his sister, marveling, as he often did, that the same shade of blond hair and green eyes that he saw in the mirror each morning looked so different in a feminine face. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
She frowned at her husband. “This is a terrible time for you to suddenly become incapable of keeping a secret.”
“Revealing my potential heir was a strategic move, I assure you.” Ryland took his wife’s hand and looped it through his elbow, pulling her closer against his side.
Her smile returned. “Oh, really?”
Griffith wanted to groan, but that would have given Miranda too much satisfaction. A man of eight and twenty should not feel the need to squirm when his little sister stared at him, even if her expression held the intensity of every headmaster he’d ever had, combined.
“Pray tell, then, who were we discussing when I arrived?” Miranda bounced on her toes in anticipation.
It didn’t matter now whether Ryland pulled the right name out of the crowd. Whomever he mentioned would become Miranda’s new best friend as she did everything in her power to help him marry the woman she thought he wanted. There would be no stopping her.
Ryland grinned as he joined Miranda in staring Griffith’s direction. “Miss Frederica St. Claire.”
Kristi Ann Hunter, An Inconvenient Beauty Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2017. Used by permission.
|author Kristi Ann Hunter|
~* Hawthorne House *~
A Lady of Esteem ~ eNovella
A Noble Masquerade ~ Book 1
An Elegant Façade ~ Book 2
An Uncommon Courtship ~ Book 3