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Authors: Rachelle Edwards

Sweet Hoyden

BOOK: Sweet Hoyden
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ONE

The evening was well advanced. The house in

Grosvenor Square
was crowded with
elegantly dressed and bejeweled people, many of whom were titled and most of
whom were very rich. The magnificence of the numerous carriages that lined the square
outside was testimony to that.

The ball held at the town mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Repton was an
early high spot of the social Season. Everyone who mattered in the haute ton
had been invited; those who were not knew exactly the state of their social
standing. In the salons and ballrooms of late the question on everyone's lips
had been whether the Prince of Wales would become Regent or if the King would
regain his senses. Now the matter was settled; wagers on the matter had been
won or lost, and the beau monde awaited the next scandal or gossip-worthy event
with great impatience.

Throughout the evening in the card room large amounts of money were being
won and lost. Diamond shoe clips and emerald rings were crossing the table at
frequent intervals. At one table the Earl of Asheville scooped his substantial
winnings into a leather purse before getting to his feet and, with a smile,
bidding his companions an affable good-night.

'He has the devil's own luck," remarked one of the losers as the earl
walked away from the table.

'It isn't like he'd need to resort to breaking shins."

'No, indeed," agreed the other, "his marriage has ensured his
future fortunes. That union is so typical of
Asheville
. A considerable heiress would not
suffice for him, I fear; the countess is also a handsome wench."

His acquaintance laughed. "A little too much for you to handle,
Royston, and from all I have heard, that may be true of
Asheville
, too."

'You need not have a care for him, I assure you. Lady Asheville will be
permitted her head on all occasions as long as he can continue enjoying his
pleasures, which are considerable."

Unaware of their acid comments, Lord Asheville strolled out of the card
room, nodding amiably to acquaintances as he passed them. He walked slowly back
toward the ballroom, where he had last seen his wife. As always she had been
surrounded by an eager crowd of friends and admirers, and the earl had harbored
no doubts that the countess would be adequately entertained during his time in
the card room.

'
Asheville
!"
He turned on his heel as he was approached by Lady Welman, an old
acquaintance. She had, in fact, been his mistress several years earlier.
"Do I dare to hope you wish to take me in to supper?" she asked coyly
when she reached him.

He bestowed upon her his most charming smile. "Alas, I cannot, my lady,
much to my regret, for I am engaged to escort my wife in to supper this evening."

Lady Welman fluttered her fan. "La! Your own wife! How
unfashionable of you, my dear."

'Indeed, I know it, but you must grant me this slight eccentricity. It is
due entirely to the short time we have been wed."

The woman looked skeptical. "Three months wed and still good
friends?"

'Remarkable, is it not?" he answered smilingly.

'Even so, I'll wager you will not escort Lady Asheville into the supper room
this night, my lord. Indeed, you will not."

So saying, she turned on her heel and strode away, laughing with her
companions, leaving the earl to frown after her for a few moments before he
continued on his way.

Several ladies eyed him with admiration as he passed them by. Up until the
end of the previous Season he had been regarded as a very eligible bachelor,
although his title and considerable wealth did not entirely account for that,
for there were others of higher rank and greater wealth. The Earl of Asheville
was considered to have a handsome countenance and a fine figure, which was
invariably clad in the height of fashion. He followed the current vogue of
wearing his own hair tied back with a ribbon, whereas some of his
contemporaries still powdered theirs or even persisted in the outdated fashion
of wearing a wig. His coats were always superbly cut to accentuate his broad
shoulders, and his smooth breeches disclosed a pair of fine legs. When he so
chose, he could use his charm to devastating effect, a fact to which many
ladies could testify. All these attributes, together with the fact he had
evaded matrimony until his thirtieth year, endowed him with a certain challenge
to debutantes on successive Seasons. So, it had come as something of a
surprise to many when his betrothal to one of their number was announced during
the last Season.

Miss Pandora Kettering was acknowledged to be a great beauty, and her
portion was considerable, so after the surprise had faded a little, the gossips
began to speculate in earnest on how a confirmed bachelor like Lord Asheville
would deal with such a fun-loving girl. In this their first Season as man and
wife all attention was on the newly married couple,
and no one was more aware of it than Lord Asheville himself.

By the time he had reached the ballroom, it was considerably less crowded
than it had been the last time he'd been there. No longer was the dance floor a
moving tapestry of brightly colored velvet and silk. Dancing, it seemed,
created considerable hunger and thirst, and the supper room was now filling
with the eager revelers, while the orchestra took a well-earned rest.

'Have you seen my wife?" he inquired of an acquaintance, who shook his head.

'Not for at least a half hour," came the reply. "Mayhap she is in
the supper room."

Among those remaining the earl could see no sign of his countess. Her mass
of red curls, always un-powdered, made her easily visible, as did her laughter,
which so often rang out above the chatter and music. Lord Asheville was
beginning to feel slightly irritated now, especially as Lady Welman's parting
shot returned to his mind. Just as he turned to leave the ballroom, the earl's
spirits plummeted further at the sight of the large lady approaching him with a
purposeful air about her.

'
Asheville
!"
she boomed. "I have been seeking you out all evening."

'Your Grace," he murmured with a bow. "I
am always at your service."

'You may not be aware of it, but I called in at Hanover Square and left my card
with your house steward a sennight ago, and I find it strange that Lady
Asheville has not returned the call as yet."

The earl drew in a sharp breath. His mother's friend was a formidable lady,
a foremost matron of the beau monde. If Pandora hoped to become a successful
Society hostess, he was fully aware, as she must be,
that she could not afford to alienate a lady of such importance.

'I am persuaded," he answered, choosing his words with infinite care,
"it was an oversight, Your Grace. Had Pandora seen your card, I know she
would have returned your call without delay."

'I suppose it is possible she has not seen it," the duchess conceded.
"Servants are so lax nowadays, don't you find?"

'Yes, indeed I do. I will have words with them on the morrow, I assure you.
I do not suppose you have had sight of my wife this evening?"

'Periodically I have caught a glimpse of her, I own. She has stood up for
almost every set, usually with Sir Aldan Buckley."

The earl bowed again as she brushed past him. When she had gone, he drew in
an exasperated sigh. Buck Buckley. That rakehell. He
might have guessed he was still dancing attendance on his wife, but even so, he
could not help but feel angry.

There were a number of guests in the garden, which was lighted by lanterns
hanging in the trees. It was not uncommon when the heat and airless-ness
indoors became too much that guests revived themselves in the garden, but at
that time of the year the air was cool, and no one lingered there for too long.

However, Pandora Asheville exhibited no anxiety to go back indoors as she
enjoyed the fairylike vista before her. "I believe I would have swooned
away if I'd been obliged to stay in the ballroom for another moment." She
sighed. "The air is so delightfully fresh out here."

Her companion gazed at her in awe. "Anywhere you are present cannot be
other than delightful, my lady."

Pandora laughed, a sound that had entranced so many
gentlemen since her debut into Society a year earlier. She tapped him playfully
on the arm with her fan. "Flatterer."

He caught hold of her by both arms and drew her toward him. "And you
are a witch, my dear, a green-eyed witch who has enslaved me. I can scarce go
about my daily tasks for thinking about you."

Pandora's laughter was a mite more uncomfortable now. "Sir Aldan, I
beg of you, remember propriety."

'You would do well to remember that I am still as madly in love with you as
the moment I offered for you. How could you accept
Asheville
's offer instead
of mine?"

'I could only accept one offer of marriage out of all those that were made,
Sir Aldan."

'Call me Buck. All my friends do."

'Indeed, I will not." She turned away from him, gazing up at the sky.
"Look at the full moon. Does it not appear that you could just reach out
and pluck it from the sky?"

'If you bid me to do it, I vow that I shall."

She laughed again. "What a tongue-pad you are, to be sure, but I own
you are also very gallant."

'Would that I were your gallant, my lady. If you cannot
be my wife, that is all I have left to crave in life. To love you and be loved
in return is all I now desire."

'Your tongue is certainly well hung," she mused, "and everyone
knows you to be a practiced rake. Why should I believe such tarradiddle?"

Once again he seized hold of her, his expression fierce. "Because
I speak only the truth. I am driven mad with love for you."

Once again Pandora drew away from him. "Sir Aldan, pray let go of my
arms. You are hurting me."

He did so, adding, "You care nothing for my hurt.

Why do you persist in this torture? You know of my feelings for you. Indeed,
you were aware of them before you became leg-shackled to
Asheville
."

'Had I accepted your offer of marriage,
Asheville
would have bemoaned his
anguish."

'You cannot think so. He has no such feelings, and what is more, I am of the
opinion he cannot make you happy, for he has a cold disposition. Everyone
remarks upon it. I'll warrant he has never been in love. You need a man who can
understand the passion in your heart, my lady, and I am that man."

Feeling desperately uncomfortable now, Pandora feigned a careless attitude.
"Oh, gentlemen suffer an excess of pride, Sir Aldan. Tis only injured
pride that prompts this outburst, nothing more. This Season there are many debutantes
who are both well favored and have generous portions. I am persuaded, if you
set your mind upon it, you will find one much to your taste."

'Heartless wench," he castigated, "to dismiss me in so cavalier a
manner when I am in perpetual agony."

When he reached out yet again and pulled her toward him, she was too
surprised to resist, and when he bestowed a kiss upon her lips, for a moment
Pandora could do nothing but allow him to press his lips against hers. Her
shock lasted only moments, but just as she recovered her surprise and was about
to draw away outraged, a familiar voice snapped out her name.

Pandora jumped back, as did her erstwhile lover. Fortunately the powder on
his face and the numer-ous patches he wore concealed a sudden paling of his cheeks.
The sight of the earl standing some few steps away came as an even greater
shock to Pandora than the dandy's kiss.

'I have been seeking you out for an age," Lord Asheville told her,
casting the other man a look which could have melted ice.

Abashed and appearing nothing like the dashing beau of a few moments before,
Sir Aldan made a brief bow. "My lady.
Asheville
." He
hurried back toward the house, leaving Pandora to stare after him in dismay.

The earl's gaze followed him pitilessly. When Sir Aldan glanced back and saw
it, he almost stumbled before making even greater haste toward the house.

'La!" Pandora laughed in order to cover her confusion as she opened
her fan and began to swish it in front of her red cheeks. "Is it supper
time already? I declare I had quite lost all notion of time."

'So it would appear," her husband tartly replied. All at once Pandora
felt cold and shivered, drawing her shawl more closely about her. The earl held
out his hand, much to her relief. "Come, let us
go inside before you take a chill."

With uncharacteristic meekness she allowed him to lead the way, joining the
path taken a few moments earlier by Sir Aldan Buckley. After a moment or two
of enduring a discomforting silence, she ventured, "Is it not the most
diverting evening?"

BOOK: Sweet Hoyden
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