She knew the precise location of Lord Darlington’s library, for she’d already stolen there several times to explore his impressive collection of books. She was certain he would not be angry if he caught her at it, but she still snuck in and out like a thief. Perhaps it was because the Darlingtons’ library felt so private. It felt like a hideaway, a shelter.
She wished she could hide away there right now.
Instead she was stuck with her silly set of young unmarried women, listening to an endless, cloying dissection of each and every gentleman guest at Danbury House. The Earl of So-and-So had the most handsome blond curls, and Lord Whomever was the most elegant dancer, didn’t everyone believe so? And had everyone heard that Sir Horrid Rake and Lady Poor Choices had stolen off behind the carriage house yesterday to be alone? That was the girls’ cue to dissolve en masse into giddy giggles. Oh, and didn’t the Honorable Mr. Barrett have the most beautiful eyes in the world?
Harmony cringed. Mr. Barrett was her scoundrel brother and he was to marry Lady Meredith Airleigh at the holidays. This did not prevent him from spending his summer fraternizing with all the ladies at the house party.
“Mr. Barrett is a cad,” Harmony said, “if you must know.”
“Oh, hush.” Lady Mirabel Godwin tapped Harmony’s head with her white lace fan. “Of course you’d think so, but I would forgive him anything for those eyes.”
“He is going to be married,” Harmony said stubbornly. “His eyes are betrothed to another.” She didn’t understand the girls’ obsession with her brother’s appearance. His eyes were a very plain shade of blue like hers, and his hair the same white-blond, and she was certainly not fawned over by any of the gentlemen.
Lady Mirabel sniffed and turned away from Harmony, edging her out of the group. “Do you know what I heard? His Grace the Duke of Courtland has finally arrived to the party, along with his mother and her companion. Perhaps we’ll see them at dinner, although I am not sure I shall be brave enough to speak to such a lofty person. If I am seated beside him I might faint into my soup.”
The idea of this sent the group off into more titters and swoons. A few older women came to join them now that His Grace was the topic. Harmony half-listened to their gossip about his wealth, his opulent estates, his appealing features. Another fine specimen for her contemporaries to prattle on about.
“Why do you suppose he has not married?” asked Miss Juliette Pettyfur.
“There are reasons.” Mrs. Castleton’s voice held a note of distaste. “I wouldn’t set your cap for that one.”
“All dukes must marry at some point,” Miss Viola Burress said, but then another woman said something about “uncomfortable habits,” and the older ladies shushed her and urged the younger women outdoors into the sunshine to take their tea.
It was there, with their heads bowed together, that the younger set of ladies whispered about what his “uncomfortable habits” might be.
“Well, if he is thirty years old and not married, that means he is a rake,” said Mirabel.
“It does not mean that at all,” Juliette retorted.
Lady Sybil looked around at the other girls with an expression of gravity. “I probably should not say this, but Papa has warned me against him.”
“There, you see,” said Mirabel. “He is a rake.”
“I believe he must be something worse than a rake.” Viola flushed. “Did you see the older ladies’ expressions when his name was brought up?”
Harmony wondered what could possibly be worse than a rake. From the silent, uneasy pall that fell over the group, she supposed she wasn’t the only one.
“Mrs. Castleton said there are reasons he hasn’t married. What could they possibly be?” Mirabel whispered.
“I do not know,” said Sybil, “but my brother spoke something of him to papa when he was considering the duke for my hand. Whatever he said, papa refused to repeat it to mama.”
This elicited horrified gasps from the entire company.
“Perhaps he has killed someone!” said one of the more fanciful girls. “A duke could get away with it.”
“I bet he has the most cold and sinister eyes,” another girl said.
“I’m frightened,” whimpered another. “Why would they invite him here among civilized people?”
“If he killed someone, why would the Darlingtons invite him into their home?” Mirabel asked. “A duke cannot run about killing people on a whim. Dukes are powerful, but not that powerful.”
“Yes,” agreed Juliette. “How silly to leap from ‘uncomfortable habits’ to ‘murderer.’ As for his cold and sinister eyes, I thought he was considered handsome.”
“I have seen him in town,” said Sybil. “He is uncommonly tall, with dark hair and attractive features. He is handsome. Dangerously so.” She raised a brow for emphasis.
Harmony was not sure how one could be dangerously handsome. Perhaps women fainted just from looking at him.
“He probably keeps dozens of mistresses,” Viola said.
“Maybe he cannot keep even one, because he is so awful to them,” said the fanciful girl. “Maybe he draws them in with his attractive features and then trods upon their hearts.”
Harmony sighed as the young women joined hands, promising to protect one another from the terrifying menace of his wiles.
“Perhaps it is only that he drinks too much at dinner,” Harmony drawled. “Or eats too much, and belches loudly and repeatedly. That would be an uncomfortable habit indeed.”
As usual, all the girls looked at her as though she were mad. Which she nearly was, after days of listening to them natter on about the stupidest subjects. She stared back at them until they all looked down at their plates.
“Well,” Sybil declared after a beat. “All I know is that I wouldn’t take him for a husband even if papa would let me, which he won’t. In fact, I am determined not to speak to him if we are introduced.”
One of the younger girls gasped. “Will you give the Duke of Courtland the cut direct? I should like to see you try it.”
The girls all began to giggle again, proclaiming they would also be bold enough to cut the duke, and wouldn’t it leave him red in the face?
Harmony doubted he would notice. If the duke was a rake and a bounder with armfuls of mistresses, he was unlikely to crumble at the disdain of a few young ladies. Thank goodness Harmony was not concerned with such nonsense. She was only here at this house party because her brother Stephen had ingratiated his way into an invitation. “It’s for you,” he had said. “For you to make a match. Any match. You aren’t getting any younger, and father and I shall not support you forever.” His pressure didn’t help matters. When this cursed party was at an end, perhaps they would resign themselves to her inevitable spinsterhood and allow her to study and bide alone to her heart’s content.
“Harmony?” Sybil’s strident voice interrupted her thoughts. “Would you?”
“Would I what?”
The ladies sighed and exchanged glances.
“Of course she would,” Sybil said under her breath. “Someone like her would not think twice about it.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” Harmony said with a pricked temper. “And I’m not sure I’ll answer since you used that mocking tone.”
“I am only teasing you.” She tapped Harmony’s arm with her fan. Harmony thought she would break the fan over top of Sybil’s head next time she was tapped, and enjoy doing so.
“Harmony!” Sybil said, breaking into her thoughts again. “I’m speaking of His Grace. Would you dance with the Duke of Courtland if he asked?”
Sybil threw up her hands in irritation. “Whenever. Yes. Tonight.”
“He won’t ask, so it’s rather a pointless question.”
Sybil looked at the others. “I told you. Yes, she would.”
“You are all unkind,” Harmony said. “Perhaps he is a fine gentleman. You haven’t even met him, only shared gossip which is probably untrue.”
“How earnest you are,” Mirabel sneered, looking around at the others. “She has shamed us, hasn’t she? Well, then, we shall leave his prodigious charms to you.” All the young ladies found that idea hilarious.
“I have had enough fresh air.” Harmony took to her feet, to the insincere protests and apologies of her friends. Of course they would want her to stay; she made such a pleasant target for their barbs. “The sun is too strong today. Have a fine afternoon.”