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Authors: Suzanne Enoch

Meet Me at Midnight

BOOK: Meet Me at Midnight
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S
UZANNE
E
NOCH

With This Ring

Meet Me At Midnight

For Cheryl and Mark—
Hugs and kisses
.

Contents

L
ady Victoria Fontaine threw back her head and laughed. “Faster, Marley!”

Below her, Viscount Marley tightened his grip around her legs and began spinning around even more recklessly. The other dancers fled to the edges of the ballroom despite the beckoning notes of the quadrille, their glares and envious whispers just a whirling blur. This would be the
last
time her parents kept her housebound for three days. Teach her restraint—ha! Chuckling breathlessly, she flung out her arms.

“Faster!”

“I’m getting dizzy, Vixen,” Marley panted, his words muffled in her gown’s rumpled green silk. He hefted her higher in the air.

“Then spin the other way!”

“Vix…damnation!” Marley lurched sideways, tottered, and dumped them both to the polished ballroom floor.

“Oops!” Vixen laughed again as her herd of admirers swooped forward to assist her to her feet. Poor Marley had to scramble out of the way to avoid being trampled. “Gadzooks, that was fun.” She staggered
sideways, blinking as the room continued to swirl and dip.

“Whoa, Vixen,” Lionel Parrish crooned, catching her up against him. “You nearly showed off your unmentionables to the Duke of Hawling. We can’t have you falling again and giving him an apoplexy.”

“I feel like a whirligig, Lionel. Please help me to a seat.”

With Vixen back on her feet, several of her herd took pity on Marley and pulled him upright, as well. He dropped into the chair beside her as they found seats at one side of the room. “Dash it, Vixen, now you’ve made me seasick.”

“You need a steadier constitution,” she said, laughing and out of breath. “Someone fetch me a punch, if you please.”

Immediately half the herd scattered for the refreshment table, while the other half moved in to take their vacated places. The musicians rallied to begin a country dance. As the ballroom floor refilled, Lucy Havers escaped from her mother’s view and hurried over to sit on Victoria’s other side.

“My goodness! Are you unhurt?” she exclaimed, grabbing Vixen’s hand.

Victoria squeezed her fingers. “Quite. Marley broke my fall.”

He sent her a glare. “If you were a large woman, Vix, I’d be dead right now.”

“If I’d been a large woman, you wouldn’t have lifted me into the air like a victory flag.” Grinning, she returned her attention to Lucy. “Is my hair at all salvageable?”

“Mostly. You’ve lost a comb.”

“I have it, Vixen,” Lord William Landry announced,
holding up the delicate ivory piece. “I’ll return it to you…in exchange for a kiss.”

My, that’s a surprise
. Trying to straighten her midnight ringlets, which did have a definite droop on one side, Victoria favored the Duke of Fenshire’s third son with a speculative smile. “Only a kiss? That is my favorite comb, you know.”

“Perhaps we might negotiate for more later, but for the moment a kiss will suffice.”

“Very well. Lionel, kiss Lord William for me.”

“Not for five hundred quid.”

Everyone laughed, while inwardly Victoria sighed. The longer she put it off, the more he would gloat about it and insinuate she owed him—and dash it all, that
was
her favorite comb. She stood, straightening her skirt, and stepped up to William Landry. On tiptoes, she brushed her lips against his cheek before he could intercept her for a sounder kiss. He reeked of brandy, but that was no great surprise.

“My comb, please,” she said, holding out her hand and unable to keep the smug look off her face. He should have known by now; no one bested the Vixen.

“That hardly counts,” William protested, scowling, while the rest of the herd guffawed at him.

“It looked like a kiss to me,” Marley said helpfully.

“Hush,” Lucy said. “Lady Franton’s glaring at us again.”

“The old witch,” William muttered, and handed over the comb. “If she were any more stiff, she’d be six feet under.”

“Perhaps she needs to be spun,” Lucy suggested, giggling.

“I could suggest several things she needs,” Marley
added darkly. “Though I’d have to be six feet under before I’d give any of it to her.”

Lucy turned crimson. Victoria didn’t mind frank speech, but neither did she want her few civilized friends driven away. She rapped Marley across the knuckles with her fan. “Stop that.”

“Ouch! Defending the downtrodden again, are you?” He rubbed his knuckles. “Lady Franton’s more elevated than your usual charity cases.”

“You’re a bad influence, Marley,” she said, beginning to become annoyed. She was used to the flirtations and the insults to her civic-mindedness, but her herd never seemed to come up with anything new to discuss. “I don’t think I’m going to speak to you any longer.”

“Hm. Bad luck for you, Marley,” Lionel Parrish said. “Make way for the next fellow.”

Immediately the herd began jostling for position, and Victoria wasn’t quite certain whether they were joking or were utterly serious. They expected her to be flattered by the attention, but in truth, it was becoming very, very old. Being behind locked doors at Fontaine House almost seemed attractive in comparison. Almost. “I’ve decided to make a vow,” she stated.

“Not of chastity, I hope,” Lord William returned with another guffaw.

Lionel Parrish frowned through the laughter, taking a step closer to Lucy. “This is hardly the place for that sort of talk.”

“Watch your knuckles, William,” Marley agreed, removing his own hands from Victoria’s reach.

“My vow is just as bad for you, Lord William,” Victoria retorted. Thank goodness her parents were in Lord Franton’s portrait gallery admiring his new ac
quisitions. William’s was only one of several remarks this evening that would help convince them to send her to a convent. “From now on, I intend to converse only with nice men.”

Shocked looks greeted her pronouncement, until Stewart Haddington began laughing. “But who else do you know besides us scoundrels, Vixen?”

“Hmm,” she mused, trying to regain her equilibrium and her sense of humor. Perhaps Marley had spun her right out of her usual self. “That
is
a problem. Marley, you must be acquainted with a few nice gentlemen. You know—the ones you’re always avoiding.”

“Certainly I know a moldering corpse or two. But they’d bore you to tears in an instant.”

He moved closer, obviously trying to reclaim his usual place at her side, but she made a show of looking for Lucy and stepped aside. She didn’t know why, but tonight she couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that she’d done all of this before, and that it hadn’t been very amusing even then. “How do you know I’d be bored?”

“Nice men are dull, my dear. That’s why you’re here with me.”

“With us,” Lord William corrected.

Victoria scowled at the lot of them. Unfortunately, Marley was correct. Nice men
were
dull—and stuffy, constrained, and narrow-minded. And their repertoire of compliments to her looks and insults to her thoughts was the same as anyone else’s. At least rogues agreed to spin her. “I only tolerate you gentlemen because you obviously have nowhere else to go,” she said haughtily.

“Sad, but true.” Lionel nodded, unrepentant. “We’re to be pitied.”

“I know I pity you,” Lucy said with a giggle, blushing again.

He kissed her knuckles. “Thank you, my dear.”

“We…good God,” Marley hissed, his gaze on something at the far end of the ballroom. “I don’t bloody believe it.”

Victoria started to censure him on his language again, until she spied what—or rather, who—had caught his attention. “Who is that?” she breathed, suddenly conscious of her heart beating fast and hard against her ribs.

Lucy turned to look, as well. “Who is…oh, my. Vixen, he’s looking right at you, isn’t he?”

“I don’t think so.” Her pulse thudded. “Do you?”

“The bastard,” Marley growled under his breath.

He seemed familiar, yet she knew she’d never set eyes on him before. She had the forceful sensation that a Greek god had strolled into Lady Franton’s stuffy old ballroom. His elegant dark gray clothing and confident stride as he moved through the crowd proclaimed him a noble; the way he kept his attention on her while greeting acquaintances proclaimed him a rake. But she knew every rake in London—and none of them had ever made her nerves hum with restless anticipation, or made her feel the blood rushing through her veins.

“Sin personified,” Lord William grumbled.

“Althorpe,” Lionel echoed.

Surprise jolted through her. “Althorpe? Thomas’s brother?”

“I’d heard the prodigal son had returned,” Marley added, intercepting a footman for a glass of Madeira. “He must have run out of blunt.”

“Or they ran him out of Italy.” Lord William
watched Lord Althorpe darkly as he made his way unwaveringly toward them.

“I thought it was Spain he was ravaging.”

“I heard Prussia.”

“Can one be asked to leave an entire continent?” William mused.

All around them, Victoria heard similar speculation, tense and breathless murmurings that mingled with the strains of the country dance. She only half listened; she felt poised on the brink of something—though of course that was ridiculous. Rakes stared at her all the time. “He looks very like his brother,” she said in a low voice, trying to regain her uncertain balance. “Thomas’s coloring was lighter, though.”

“Thomas’s soul was lighter,” Lord William countered, and stepped forward as the dark male disruption reached them. “Althorpe. Surprised to see you in London.”

The Marquis of Althorpe inclined his head. “I like surprises.”

Victoria couldn’t pull her attention from him. No doubt every female in the room had her eyes glued helplessly to his lean, rangy form. With all the rakes she’d encountered, she’d never seen one who seemed quite as…dangerous. His superfine gray coat hugged his broad shoulders and emphasized his narrow hips; black breeches clung to his muscular thighs. The new marquis projected a strength and power that were almost animally attractive.

His eyes, the golden amber of fine whiskey, didn’t smile at all as he gazed at her herd of male admirers. She’d half-thought he meant to stride right up to her, throw her over his shoulder, and make away with her,
but he stopped in a civil enough manner to greet the gentlemen surrounding Lucy and her.

The low drawl of his voice resonated down her spine, and she tried to ignore the sensation—without success. A lock of black hair had strayed across his brow, and her fingers itched with the abrupt desire to brush it back from his tanned face. His sensuous lips curved in a slight, jaded smile, and she didn’t think it was her earlier spinning that now made her feel lightheaded.

“Vixen, Lucy, allow me to introduce Sinclair Grafton, the Marquis of Althorpe,” William was saying. “Althorpe, Lady Victoria Fontaine and Miss Lucy Havers.”

The amber gaze returned to her face, studying and assessing. He took her gloved hand and bowed over it. “Lady Victoria.”

Althorpe then turned away, greeting Lucy in the same manner, and unexpected, unaccustomed jealousy stabbed through Victoria. It was ridiculous, but she didn’t want to share her new discovery. With anyone. “Lord Althorpe. My condolences about your brother,” she said, deliberately interrupting him.

He returned his attention to her. “My thanks, Lady Victoria. Had you heard, Marley, that—”

“You’re welcome. I would have expressed my condolences earlier, of course, but you weren’t available.”

Althorpe’s gaze traveled the length of her. “If I’d known you waited in London to comfort me, I would have returned much sooner,” he murmured.

“What does bring you to London?” Marley asked.

The viscount’s tone didn’t seem particularly friendly, but no doubt he didn’t appreciate the additional competition. Her herd had developed an internal
hierarchy over the course of the last Season or two, one that left Marley with the greatest privileges toward her. She didn’t particularly appreciate that, but as none of the others held any more interest for her than he did and it kept the arguing to a minimum, she’d let it go.

The marquis shrugged dismissively. “It’s been a while since I’ve visited, and now that I’m titled, my position has improved. So, tell me, Marl—”

“You’ve been titled for two years, as I recall,” Victoria interrupted again, ignoring Lucy’s surprised look. Damn it all, she didn’t want him wandering off with Marley to drink and talk about women and wagering.

Again he looked at her. She wished she weren’t so petite, so that she didn’t have to look up at the towering nobleman standing before her. The top of her head barely came to his shoulder.

“So I have.” Something flickered in his amber gaze, though it was gone so swiftly that she couldn’t be certain she’d seen anything at all. “Do you have a personal interest in the Althorpe title, my lady?” he continued in his deep drawl.

“Your brother was a friend of mine.”

This time she was certain something sharpened his expression. “How unique. I didn’t think my stuffy old brother knew anyone who walked without the assistance of a cane.”

That seemed callous in the extreme, and she wondered whether he was intentionally baiting her. Why, she had no idea, but she wouldn’t stand for such nonsense—not even from the late marquis’s own brother. “Thomas was not—”

“Perhaps we might discuss this during the waltz,”
he said, glancing across the room as the orchestra began playing one.

A thrill ran along her nerves again, and she began to suspect that she’d become demented. “This dance belongs to Mr. Parrish,” she said. Devilishly handsome or not, Sinclair Grafton was obviously just another self-centered rake—and she had enough of those about already.

Althorpe didn’t bother looking at Lionel. “You don’t mind, do you, Parrish?”

“Ahem. Not if Vixen doesn’t,” Lionel answered diplomatically.

“I mind,” Marley broke in.

“It’s not your waltz.” Althorpe held out his hand. The gesture wasn’t a suggestion, but a command. “Lady Victoria?”

His manners were turning out to be less promising than his looks. But since she’d already made one scene that evening, Victoria settled for clenching her jaw as he took her around the waist and swept her into the dance.

BOOK: Meet Me at Midnight
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