“Now Lady Eleanor, why would you worry your pretty little head about such matters?”
There was no way her expression could be deemed a smile, but Eleanor Chalcroft managed to deliver a pleasant curve of her lips despite the aggravated clench of her teeth.
“I assure you, Lord Elphinstone,” she replied in a close approximation of a gentle tone of voice. “I am not the least bit worried. I simply wondered why the Turks wanted Greece in the first place.”
Lord Elphinstone chuckled as if she had made the wittiest comment and turned
back to the other men in the small group surrounding her and her father. The men were discussing the recent capture of the Acropolis by the Turks. Truly, she thought as she allowed her gaze to drift over the swirling masses of ball gowns at the de Wynter ball, she had absolutely no interest in acropolises or Greek islands. She’d merely asked a question. If she’d made a comment on the cut of his coat, she was sure Lord Elphinstone would have been all ears. Glancing at said coat, she frowned. What was the point of a well-cut coat when the man’s posture was so terrible? No doubt the young lordling thought his pose struck a devil-may-care attitude, but really, his slouch and slightly protruding belly were anything but rakish.
“We need an independent Greek state to act as a buffer between Europe and the Ottoman Empire,” her father was telling the nodding group of men around them. Eleanor promptly stopped listening and returned her attention to the two hundred guests who, like her, were not immediately concerned about the spread of the Ottoman Empire. It was the same group of people she had been socializing with since her debut three years past. Many were friends—Eleanor had been deemed a “diamond of the first water” immediately following her come out, a fact that she accepted without any real thought. While it was certainly gratifying to be considered one of the most desirable young ladies on the marriage market, she really had nothing to do with her looks. Her mother was the source of Eleanor’s golden hair and china-blue eyes. According to Lady Chalcroft, all the ladies of her mother’s family shared their similar rose-and-cream complexion. Her father had certainly contributed to Eleanor’s appeal; from him came the blueness of her blood and her splendid wardrobe.
For her part, Eleanor played her role in society to perfection. Her manners were impeccable. She was ever smiling softly, she knew how to draw people into conversation. Moreover, her laugh had become practically famous in the London ballroom scene. It had been likened to the delicate chime of the finest Waterford crystal (a statement which had taken every ounce of Eleanor’s control not to snort at—she’d always considered it a bit of an embarrassment).
Nonetheless, the point was that there was nothing new to distinguish this Season from her previous two, except the knowledge that she was going to have to choose a husband. Her parents had been remarkably indulgent the past two years, but no self-respecting young woman returned for a fourth Season. However, the thought of securing herself for life to one of the men who had professed everything from poetic devotion to undying love…well it left Eleanor feeling a bit panicked if she must be truthful. Not one of these men had sparked her interest for more than a few weeks—and tepid interest it had been too.
Eleanor sighed. Perhaps she was being ridiculously picky. Many of the men who had courted her—who were still courting her—were perfectly nice. They just--
Her attention was diverted when she was pushed roughly from behind. Struggling not to step on her skirts and tumble headfirst into the dance floor, she gasped in surprise when her arms were roughly grasped and she was hauled up against a solid wall of man. Her heart was beating rapidly from her brush with catastrophe but when she turned to find who had caught her, it began to race.
Standing before her was a tall man—a bit taller than the average. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Shoulders perhaps a bit broader in an otherwise ordinary jacket of black superfine. His features—thick brows, longish nose, slightly lopsided smile—while attractive, were not exceptionally handsome. Eleanor could not reconcile why she suddenly found herself speechless, utterly transfixed.
“Are you alright? I didn’t grab you too hard, did I?” the man asked. His voice was certainly distinctive—deep and a little raspy, as if he had been in the gaming salon, surrounded by pipe and cigar smoke. His accent was a little different as well—certainly well educated, but with a different cadence than she was accustomed to hearing.
She shook her head, struggling to maintain her equilibrium. Perhaps it was his scent—spicy and citrusy all at the same time—that had her feeling so befuddled. Shaking her head again, this time trying to clear it of its fascination with the tall stranger, she turned to her father who was still lecturing the group of men around him.
“Fitzhugh!” one of the younger men exclaimed. “Never thought I’d see the day you attended a London ball! How are you? And Taggart? My stars it’s been a long while!” The young man, Lord Pemberly, grabbed the newcomers’ hands and shook them enthusiastically.
“Well enough, I suppose,” the stranger—Fitzhugh—answered. “And you? Still panting after opera dancers?”
Several of the men laughed uncomfortably, casting nervous glances at Eleanor. His companion—Taggart—elbowed him in the ribs and frowned. She raised her eyebrows at the comment. While well aware of the existence of such demi-monde figures as opera dancers, Eleanor had never heard a man mention one in her presence. Either this Fitzhugh was ignorant of the etiquette of ballroom conversation (in which case, what on earth was he doing at Lady de Wynter’s ball?) or he thought himself above such etiquette (in which case, what on earth was he doing at Lady de Wynter’s ball? She was quite the stickler for propriety at her events.)
Fitzhugh caught her speculative gaze and lifted his own eyebrow in return. Eleanor didn’t know whether to be amused at his disregard for decorum, or offended. She decided to ignore him altogether and was about to turn and look for her overdue dance partner when Lord Pemberly called her name.
“Lady Eleanor, please allow me to introduce you to two old friends, Lord Reginald Taggart and Mr. Alexander Fitzhugh. Gentlemen, Lady Eleanor Chalcroft, daughter to the Marquess of Charville, who is right here.” Turning, Pemberly saw Lord Chalcroft still lecturing his dwindling group of fellows and turned back to his friends. “Ah, well, I shall introduce you later.
Fitzhugh turned to Eleanor and gave her a dazzling smile, oozing charm as he reached for her hand. Eleanor waited a moment longer than was polite to give it to him. It was mild enough retribution for his slip, but she thought it best if he realized she could not be treated cavalierly in one moment and then charmed into overlooking it in the next.
“Mr. Fitzhugh,” she said coolly.
“Lady Eleanor,” he replied. “Again I hope I did you no harm when I sought to catch you a moment ago.”
“Indeed not,” she said dismissively with a slight wave of her free hand. He had not released the hand he had bent over. Finally she pulled it from his grasp with a tad more force than she would have cared to use at ball. He grinned again and Eleanor resisted the strong urge to slap him.