Viscount Anthony Roland Alexander Donnington smiled, thrilled with the perfection of Mozart’s The Shepherd King. The last notes of act one faded into the hubbub of voices as members of the haut ton began to meander from box to box, renewing acquaintances and sharing the latest on-dits. His close friends, the Earl of Sherbonne and Baron Adam Loxley, had joined the crowds, but Lord Anthony was quite content to remain in the duke’s box, watching the parade of luxurious velvets, brilliant satins and colorful silks that heralded the new London season. Not even the prospect of flirting with the latest debutantes appealed to him as much as simply observing the splendor of the red and gold opera house and the endless variety of faces and figures.
Almost without thinking, he whipped out his sketchbook and his pencil began to flash across the pages, recording the vibrancy and vividness of the parade. He was just beginning to draw Lady Sylvia’s curvaceous figure, beautifully displayed in a low-cut gown of deep sapphire blue, when Lord Theo, the fourth member of the quartet who had been friends since their first day at Eton, leaned over Anthony’s shoulder, peering at his quick sketches. The marquess chuckled. “Those are some very pretty pictures you’re making.”
Anthony merely shrugged and snapped the book closed. Theo slapped him on his shoulder. “One day you’ll let us into the secrets of your art. Were you able to finish the painting Loxley asked for?”
Anthony fingered the pencil in his pocket. “Adam’s painting was shipped to him a few days ago.”
The dullness of his voice brought a frown to Theo’s face and his next words lost the light, bantering tone. There was real concern as he said, “You mentioned in your last letter that things in are not quite perfect in your life right now.”
The viscount gazed unseeingly out over the audience. “The doctors are concerned about my father’s heart, and my stepmother is not particularly sympathetic to his plight. She makes rather pointed comments about having married a gentleman so much older than she is, and she insisted on coming to London even though Papa would have preferred to stay at the Abbey.”
Theo gave Donnington’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze but commented lightly, “Your father has the same eye for beauty that you have and he could not resist the very beautiful Lady Lucretia. It is a pity that her character does not match her appearance.”
Donnington laughed but did not answer and Theo left him to go and pour a glass of wine for his cousin. The viscount, left alone with his thoughts, was soon engrossed by the constant activity in the audience. He opened his sketch book to a blank page and, before long, had put aside all worrying thoughts as he wondered which colors in his paint box would best capture the rich auburn shade of Lady Whittemore’s hair and the emeralds that gleamed at her creamy breast. He glanced up to ensure that he had captured her vitality perfectly and was distracted by a commotion in the box next to hers.
The box had been empty during the first act, but now a small party, consisting of a portly middle-aged gentleman, a complacent flat-faced lady who must be his wife, and an older, angular lady were settling down.
They seated themselves and the fourth member of their party came into view. All thoughts of Lady Whittemore vanished. Donnington raised his quizzing glass and gazed unabashedly at the vision of perfect beauty who was reading the programme as if it contained the secret to eternal life.
She was dressed in a simple white muslin dress that clung softly to the perfect proportions of her lithe figure and shapely roundness of her breasts. Like at least a dozen other young gentlemen, Donnington gazed at her, enraptured by her loveliness, but she was completely oblivious to the attention she had generated. Her serenity set her apart from the swirl and strutting of the rest of the audience.
The viscount flipped to a new page in his book and began to capture that beauty with his pencil. Her hair was soft and silky, the color of the first leaves in autumn, and her figure was as graceful as the boughs of a young willow tree. Donnington was riveted. This vision of perfection had wandered out of his dreams and into the Royal Opera House. Her soft pink lips begged for kisses and her rosy cheeks gave color to the cream of her cheeks. Although he could not be sure from that distance, he decided that her eyes must be the blue of summer skies.
Before the end of the intermission, the viscount had heard her name: Miss Clarissa Blakeney. Whispers rippled across the audience conveying the news that she was a debutante, newly arrived in London. Before the end of the evening, she was being hailed by most of the gentlemen as the epitome of beauty, the perfect embodiment of an English rose. Although most of the unmarried and a large number of the married gentlemen had tried to attract her attention, she ignored their efforts. She was so oblivious to the stir she had made that Donnington wondered if she was even aware that she had become the hottest topic of discussion. Where other young ladies simpered and flirted with arch looks over fans and curls tossed coquettishly, Miss Blakeney had not once even so much as glanced at any of her admirers.
Act two of the opera began, but Donnington no longer paid any attention to the soaring notes of the music. He spent the rest of the evening admiring Miss Clarissa Blakeney. His little sketchbook was quickly filled with images of her every graceful gesture, every gentle tilt of her head, every sweet smile.
Miss Blakeney’s emotions were vivid and entrancing. She leaned forward and clutched the edge of the box when Elise plaintively sang of her woes in being forced to marry a man she did not love. And when the lovers vowed their constant love for each other, her face shone with delight. She showed none of the bored nonchalance affected by so many of the other audience members. And Donnington recorded each moment.
His heart was touched by little acts of kindness she did for the others in her party. When the gentleman dropped his programme, she retrieved it. Later, when the performance ended, she arranged a shawl over the elderly lady’s shoulders with such gentle grace that Donnington was smitten. Her character promised to be even more charming than her appearance.
As the audience swarmed out of the theatre, the paragon of beauty vanished, but Donnington still stood staring at the place where she had been. He almost didn’t hear Sherbonne declare, “The night is yet young. I believe a few games of faro at White’s and a bottle of brandy will end the day well. We might even have time to visit Briar House.”
Adam and Theo agreed enthusiastically, but Donnington shook his head. “I think I’m going to head straight home.”
Loxley chuckled. “Ah, the muse has bitten. I look forward to seeing what great works of art the incomparable beauty of Miss Clarissa Blakeney will inspire.”
Anthony was startled by the flash of jealous possessiveness that surged through him at Adam’s words. He wanted to paint the lovely Clarissa, but he had no desire to let other men gaze at her beauty. He wanted her for himself.
As soon as Lord Anthony arrived at Donnington House, he headed for his studio. Putting aside the painting he had been working on, he placed a new canvas on his easel. He stared at the white space, and then began to fill it with rapid strokes of color.
On Thursday evening, Clarissa stood sedately at her aunt’s side, trying to hide her disappointment at the very plain rooms that housed Almack’s assembly. The somewhat bare rooms and simple refreshments did not match her dreams of elegant splendor or the grandeur of the Opera House she had been to the night before. She frowned as some of the most elite members of the haut ton thronged the rooms, bowing sedately to one another and taking careful note of who was, and who was not, present.
Although the ladies were dressed in the most fashionable gowns and the gentlemen’s cravats were tied in the most elaborate styles, she could not help feeling disappointed. The snippets of conversation she overheard were commonplace and superficial, and everyone was stiff and formal. No one smiled. Even the music was staid and ponderous, as if the musicians were aware of the seriousness of assemblies in this most sacred of society’s temples. Clarissa glanced nervously at her dance card. It was empty, although some gentlemen gazed at her through their quizzing glasses.
Aunt Agatha, however, looked very satisfied. Under cover of the sedate music that accompanied the opening minuet, she whispered to Clarissa, “See, look over there. That is Countess Lieven herself. It was she who agreed to let you have vouchers, so we must be especially polite to her. Oh, and the gentleman in the bright blue coat is Sir Trenwith, from an ancient and respected family in Dorset.”
Clarissa was not particularly impressed with the gentleman, no matter what position he held in society. Her sense of disappointment deepened. She had thought that at least some of the gentlemen would be as daring and dashing as the heroes of her dreams. Her eyes widened as she watched a portly gentleman with balding hair, whose shirt buttons strained against his corpulent waist, addressing the Master of Ceremonies and pointing at her. He had an air of smug complacency that Clarissa found amusing. “Who is that?” she asked her aunt.
Aunt Agatha surreptitiously consulted a little notebook in which she had made notes about eligible bachelors. She nodded. “That is Mr. Hemsby and although he does not have a title, he is dignified, respectable and not given to the wild exploits of so many young gentlemen.”
Mr. Hemsby and the Master of Ceremonies came to Aunt Agatha and bowed gravely. For one wild moment, Clarissa thought Mr. Hemsby was going to ask her aunt to dance, but his eyes skimmed over her. She felt like an insect pinned to a board on display to curious eyes.
The Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Allston, cleared his throat. “Miss Blakeney, allow me to present Mr. Hemsby, a very reputable gentleman who would like to request a dance with your niece.”
Clarissa almost giggled at the absurdity of the ceremony, but a glimpse of her aunt’s face kept her in check. She eyed Mr. Hemsby. He sounded and looked dull, but he was the first person to approach her for a dance and she could not refuse his invitation without causing a minor scandal.
Reluctantly, but with a polite smile, Clarissa followed Mr. Hemsby onto the dance floor. With great concentration, Mr. Hemsby lumbered through the first steps, and Clarissa almost tripped as he trod heavily on the end of her dress train.
After a few moments, Mr. Hemsby remarked, “It is gratifying to see so many couples dancing.”
Clarissa glanced around at the twenty or so couples that made up the set, unsure of the correct response to such a commonplace observation. She smiled again and said, “It is indeed.”
Mr. Hemsby nodded as if she had revealed the secret to eternal youth. He then commented on how pleasant the weather had been that day. Again, she agreed. The quarter hour of the dance dragged on in that fashion until Clarissa was ready to scream and her cheeks were aching with the need to keep a smile fixed on her face.
She was relieved when her dance partner returned her to her aunt’s side and she no longer had to think of appropriate answers to his dull comments. The music changed to a cotillion and Clarissa began to sway to the livelier rhythm, a smile lighting up her face. Aunt Agatha placed her hand on her niece’s arm. “Calm down, dear. You do not want to be considered hoydenish. The very best of society come to these assemblies, and while your good looks are sure to attract much interest, you must be careful not to give anyone the impression that you are not perfectly well-mannered.”
Clarissa smoothed the soft muslin of her new white ball dress. It was the prettiest dress she had ever owned, and catching a glimpse of herself in a large gilt-framed mirror on the opposite wall, she smiled. She liked the way the dress swirled when she swayed in time to the music, but her aunt’s hand on her arm reminded her that she was expected to be sedate. She schooled her face into the same kind of bored and impassive expression she noted on the faces of those around her and that she had been practicing in front of her mirror ever since her aunt had pointed out to her that respectable ladies were not supposed to show too much enthusiasm.
She stilled her hands at her sides and tried to recall the myriad rules of etiquette her aunt had been drilling into her. She was not to make any untoward gestures, she needed to speak very softly and only answer questions that were put to her, not ever beginning a conversation, and she should never dance more than once with the same gentleman in an evening. Any faux pas she committed would brand her forever as wayward and she would become a pariah, never able to attract the right kind of marriage proposition.
It was not long before her demure conduct and pretty face attracted the interest of a variety of gentlemen and she soon found herself pacing out the steps of the dances she had so painstakingly learned with the dancing teacher her aunt had hired. But all the time, she longed for something a little different, a little more exciting than the bland conversation and pompous posturing of the people she was introduced to.
She had just completed a quadrille with Sir Trenwith when a commotion at the door caught her attention. A tall, good-looking gentleman, with broad shoulders that filled his elegant blue jacket, and auburn hair that gleamed like burnished copper in the candlelight, entered the assembly rooms just as the porter was closing the door for the night. No one was allowed in after eleven.
Clarissa caught her breath. She had never seen anyone as handsome, as confident, as alluring as the tardy gentleman. He gazed around the room with something of a propriety air and a confidence that set him apart from the men she had been dancing with. His eyes came to rest on her, and she felt her cheeks turn pink as his gaze swept over her from the crown of her head to the soft folds of her muslin dress. She found it difficult to breath, especially when he ignored the other guests and came directly to her. He did not bother with the formality of introductions.
Lord Anthony bowed, his greeting taking in both her and Aunt Agatha. “Miss Blakeney, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. May I have the honor of the next dance?”
Clarissa smiled broadly, her blue eyes sparkling with delight and animating her expression. “Yes, please.”
Aunt Agatha snorted softly but offered no demur.
Clarissa felt like a princess accompanied by Prince Charming during the magical half an hour that Lord Anthony led her through the dance.
As soon as the dance began, he said, “I saw you at the opera last night. What did you think of the performance?”
With vivid animation, Clarissa conveyed her delight. Before long, she was arguing her point that the story was delightful and although somewhat fanciful, the ending proved that real love was possible and desirable.
Lord Anthony laughed and continued to encourage her to express her ideas fervently. The conversation turned to music in general and then to the latest poetry. Every moment of the dance was filled with scintillating and lively discussion. And every time Clarissa placed her hand in his, a tingling sensation pulsed through her. Heat suffused her that had more to do with his touch than the exertion of dancing. Her breasts were heavy and tight, but she floated through the steps of the cotillion. Never, had she met anyone with such charming manners and such lively intelligence. He was, without a doubt, the most handsome man she had ever seen. Her eyes were starry with dreams and the previously dull evening now sparkled with promise.
When the dance was over, the viscount returned her to her aunt and brought her a glass of lemonade, and then he left her with the assurance that he looked forward to leading her in many more dances.
Clarissa had no partner for the first of the country dances, but her heart was light and it was only her aunt’s stern look that kept her from letting laughter bubble up. Dreams of the charming viscount were all the company she needed. She took a sedate sip of her lemonade and tried not to make it too obvious that she was watching him as he conversed with a group of gentlemen on the other side of the ballroom.
Clarissa’s elation lasted for the length of time it took the first couple to make it back to the top of the line for the Boulangère. Someone near her mentioned the viscount’s name and she strained to hear what was being said, even though she knew it was wrong to eavesdrop.
“Anthony appears to have found a pretty new skirt to pursue. I hear he ogled her all through the opera last night and although he never comes to Almack’s, it appears her charms have drawn him here tonight.”
Clarissa tried to get a better view of the gentleman who had spoken. He was hidden behind the large fronds of a potted palm tree, but she could see his companion. The lady, who was quite a bit younger than her husband, was dressed in the finest display of sartorial elegance that Clarissa had ever seen. Her dress was of the finest pale yellow silk and had clearly been created by one of the best modistes in London. Diamonds glittered in her tiara, bearing testimony to her elevated rank. The lady turned slightly as she answered and Clarissa caught sight of her face. She had raised the look of ennui favored by the leaders of fashionable society to a level that suggested she had experienced all that life could offer and she dared anyone to actually offer her innovative amusement.
Her voice dripped with disdain. “I must applaud your son’s taste; she is quite the prettiest little thing to enter London society in a while, although she shows a tendency to liveliness that is a little vulgar. She smiles too much.”
Clarissa wasn’t sure how to separate the compliment from the criticism in this stranger’s words. She knew she should walk away, but she was riveted to the spot. The lady glanced in her direction, her eyes sweeping past her, as if she had not seen Clarissa, and yet Clarissa had the odd impression that the lady knew she could hear every word. It was almost as if she wanted Clarissa to hear her comments.
The gentleman’s voice was drily ironic as he replied, “Anthony is still young and enjoys the hunt more than the capture, I think. He appreciates beauty wherever it is found, and this new little lady is very pretty indeed. She will keep him entertained for a while.”
The lady’s expression darkened. Her lips drew together in a straight line. The languidness of her reply covered her obvious irritation. “Anthony is like a child, chasing after the prettiest baubles, always wanting the newest shiny toy to play with. He has not yet learned to appreciate true quality.”
The gentleman looked thoughtfully at his companion but picked up the earlier thread of conversation. “I would like to know a little more about this newest flirtation of his. It does help to be prepared when the mamas of his conquests come to me demanding my intervention.”
The lady gave an elegant snort. “It is remarkable how quick young ladies are to hear the peal of wedding bells if Anthony so much as dances with them. If young ladies are foolish enough to misunderstand his intentions, then they have only themselves to blame. He has set up at least three flirtations already this season. The attraction lasts only until a new pretty face catches his eye. He has, I am told, left a trail of broken hearts and shattered expectations in his wake.”
The couple fell silent for a few moments, and Clarissa, recalling her manners, was just about to move out of hearing distance when the lady spoke again. She laughed lightly. “I do not think this latest flirtation of his will cause any problems. After Anthony spent half the night ogling her at the opera, I did a little investigating. Clarissa Blakeney is the cousin of an obscure country squire who has pretentions to the aristocracy. Not much is known about her parents, but there are whispers of some scandal. Her aunt is convinced that her face is her fortune and that exposing her to the foremost ranks of society will gain her a titled husband. That is, however, unlikely. She has neither the polish nor the finesse of a real lady, and her dowry is not sufficiently large to cover any lapses in her conduct. She had best return to the countryside and marry a farmer.”
Indignation choked Clarissa. There was a vitriol in the lady’s words that puzzled her, but the general meaning was clear. Clarissa shifted her attention to the dance floor where Lord Anthony was now dancing with Lady Augusta. Her shoulders stiffened. She tried not to think of how wonderful it had been to be the focus of those intense green eyes. For a brief, happy half hour she had indulged a dream of being swept up into those strong arms and kissed passionately.
Her shoulders straightened and her back stiffened. Never again, would any person have a reason to criticize her behavior. She would be the perfect young lady, obeying every rule of etiquette demanded by society. Fierce determination seized her. Clarissa would not be duped by flattery, no matter how beguiling her dance partner was. She would crush her foolish attraction to Lord Anthony and never again be silly enough to fall for a gentleman’s charm.
Just as she schooled her expression into a mask of impassivity and turned to greet her partner for the next dance, she heard the gentleman say, “He will bore of her as quickly as he does all the others. He has more sense than to marry a little nobody, no matter how pretty she is. He has been raised to be conscious of his rank and breeding and will honor the family name.”
The lady smiled complacently. “He will marry someone like me.”
The gentleman looked at her for a few silent moments and then agreed drily, “Yes, I expect he will marry someone like you.”