But Harmony dared not. The duke had noticed her at dinner the very first night, his eyes glinting in wary recognition. His arch expression left no doubt he remembered how they’d met. Since then, she had kept her gaze on her lap or the carpet, leaving her friends to comment upon his every expression and movement from the corner where they spied on him.
“He is so tall,” Viola said breathlessly. “Each time I see him I am shocked by his height.”
Mirabel fingered her fan. “Look how he stares about at everyone without smiling. He is too severe.”
“His hair is disordered,” said another girl.
“I thought he would look older,” said Juliette. “He is old, is he not?”
“He does not dance with anyone,” sniffed Sybil. “How rude. He probably doesn’t know how.”
They fell silent, peeking at him from behind their fans. Harmony allowed herself a long look too, now that he was occupied talking to his friends. The duke was in evening black with a neatly tied cravat and elegant jewelry glittering at his neck and hands. Nothing too ostentatious. No, the ostentatious thing was the air of power and hauteur he wore as easily as his fine clothes. His expression was carefully neutral, yes, almost severe. His handsome features were framed by dark hair worn slightly longer than was the fashion. He did not smile, not even once, in the course of his conversations.
“I believe he can dance very well.” Mirabel’s voice sounded slow, almost predatory. She looked over her shoulder at Harmony. “You are the one who was willing to dance with him. Go stand near him and see if he’ll ask you.”
The girls tittered. Harmony set her chin. “I never said I was willing. I dislike dancing.”
Sybil’s lips curled. “I can’t imagine why. Come, ladies, let us rejoin the company of our young gentlemen. As for the Duke of Courtland, he may stand and glower all he likes but he shall not impress me.”
Harmony stayed behind, as they doubtless intended her to. The girls massed in the center of the drawing room, arranging themselves with their favored beaux for the next set as an old matron plinked doggedly at the piano. Harmony shouldn’t be jealous that her friends had such fun, that they enjoyed flirtation and the attentions of their suitors. She wished she wasn’t jealous, but in quiet, weak moments, she desperately wanted to be like them. She wanted gentlemen to shoulder each other out of the way for her attention, to hang on her every word, however vapid those words would have to be. She wished a gentleman, just one gentleman, would notice her.
But then she remembered that she didn’t like to be vapid, and she didn’t wish her entire life to revolve around the attention of men.
There was only one man among the guests who interested her anyway, and that was the mysterious, worse-than-a-rake duke. What were his uncomfortable habits? How many mistresses did he have and what awful things did he do to them, that Lady Sybil’s papa must strike the duke from his list of acceptable candidates for her hand? The duke did not seem at all perverse in his manners. In fact, he had been quite civil to her when she’d surprised him under Lord Darlington’s desk.
Harmony watched as the wealthy peer drifted into the card room and out again, then went to the punch bowl for a drink. His hair was slightly unconventional, perhaps due to a mild case of curls. One dubious aspect of an otherwise very sedate person. Harmony dropped her gaze from his hair and stared at his gloved hands. Even across the room she could tell the duke’s gloves were impeccably fitted, of utmost quality. Everything about him screamed quality and propriety, and nothing uncomfortable at all. She rubbed her eyebrows and forced herself to stop staring. She was no better than her friends, speculating endlessly about him.
“Miss Barrett. Must you hide your beauty back here in this corner? It is not fair.” The booming voice of elderly Lord Monmouth startled her, along with the noisy creaking of his stays. Behind him, her brother gave her an urgent look. “Might I have the next dance, madam?” the old earl asked.
Harmony schooled her face to careful blankness even though she was quailing inside. Lord Monmouth was a kind man but his teeth were decaying and his figure was very…round. She forgot all about the sleek dark duke as she stared in horror at the earl’s extended arm.
“Lord Monmouth, forgive me, but I’m not feeling my best at the moment. I’m really too…”
Her brother caught her eye and glared a threat at her.
“I’m really too…bloated from dinner to…dance yet…” she finished weakly, eyeing Lord Monmouth’s rotund belly straining above his breeches.
“I am sorry to hear it,” Lord Monmouth grunted, his expression hardening. “I pray you feel better soon. Good evening to you.” Without further ado, he stalked past her brother and disappeared into the adjoining salon to join the other gentlemen at cards.
“Harmony!” Her brother vibrated with frustration. “Lord Monmouth is a widower. A rich widower, you twit. What of finding a match?”
“You cannot think I’d wish to marry that ancient gentleman?”
“What do your wishes have to do with anything?” Stephen pulled her up, wrenching her arm in the process. “I had to play nice with the man for nearly an hour, regaling him with tales of how sweet and misunderstood you are only to get him to come over here. And you—” He pinched her elbow painfully. “You tell him you are too bloated to dance with him? I am sure he’s even now sharing that entertaining tidbit with his card partners, and they are all having a great laugh at your expense.”
“Let go of me.” If they pulled at each other any harder, they would draw attention to themselves. “Release me,” she hissed. “You are hurting me.”
“It’s what you deserve. And if you are feeling so bloated, you can very well retire to your room for the evening. It embarrasses me, the way you skulk about. You won’t be happy until we’re both utter laughingstocks.”
He grasped her arm and forced her forward so she had no choice but to trip across the room under his simmering control. They were nearly to the door when a sudden hush descended on the company. The Duke of Courtland stepped right in front of them, his face a polite but rigid mask. He nodded to her brother and then waited for Harmony to acknowledge him—which she did with a shocked stare. He bowed slightly.
“Madam, I am sorry to have not made your acquaintance before now.”
*** *** ***
Court wondered what had come over him.
Well, any polite guest owed it to the hostess to participate at least marginally in the entertainments. Or become one, if circumstances called for it. He wasn’t about to let Barrett drag off his sister before the whole group. The unfortunate young miss gawked at him. An offer of her hand would have been the appropriate way to proceed, but her brother still had her by the arm. Court glared at him so fiercely he released her and took a step back.
“Your Grace, I am d—deeply honored to introduce my sister, Miss Harmony Barrett.”
Court nearly lost his composure over her name. Harmony? “Chaos” would have been more fitting. “Miss Barrett,” he said, taking her now-proffered hand and raising it to his lips. “The honor is mine. Would you care to dance the next set?” He looked back at the massing couples, all of whom were staring at them. “It begins shortly.”
Her pale blue eyes widened as her fingertips fluttered in his grasp. “Dance it…with you?”
He looked around. “Who else?”
She closed and opened her mouth again. “I— I—”
If she refused him it would be hilarious. It would be talked about in drawing rooms and ballrooms for years. He held her gaze, willing her to do as she wished, to refuse him if she wanted to. Blue, so very blue. Her eyes were a pale, clear blue and her features so delicately pretty.
“If you wish, Your Grace,” she finally managed, nodding her head and bobbing an awkward curtsy. He held her hand tighter and led her to the center of the room as her gaping brother looked on.
The set began just as they arrived, as if the other dancers had been waiting for them. Miss Barrett grimaced, flubbing very badly the first pair of turns. “I’m afraid I don’t dance well,” she said.
“You dance wonderfully.” He gave her a nudge through the next step so she didn’t turn the wrong way. She shot him a harried look that rather amused him. He caught a glimpse of his mother seated on the periphery with Mrs. Lyndon, all color drained from her face.
He grinned at Miss Barrett simply to goad his mother as they moved through the formations of the country dance. Over, under, turn left, turn right. He found dancing extremely boring, but partnering Miss Barrett livened up the proceedings. There were always stray arms to grab and adjustments in balance to keep him alert. His partner was grim-faced and silent, not once engaging him in a conversation about Mongol hordes, or Viking or Pictish hordes, or any other type of horde. For his part, he murmured encouragements when he wasn’t managing her unruly arms and dodging the trods of her feet.