The Duke of Stanford’s Ballroom
“Quit yanking on your cravat, Richard—you look as though you’ve been mauled by those beetles you’re so bloody fond of,” Lucien said under his breath.
Richard laughed. “Thank you, Luce, I can always count on you to give me the words with the bark still on them.”
Lucien’s cheeks darkened. “Sorry.”
Richard couldn’t help noticing that his twin’s eyes were in constant motion as he searched the swelling crowds for something. Or someone.
And Richard could guess who.
“I don’t mean to be an arse, Rich,” Lucien said. “It’s just—”
“I know, I know. It’s a burden to have a barnacle like me stuck to your side.” Richard patted his brother’s shoulder.
Lucien snorted. “Idiot.”
They both grinned.
Richard squinted around at the multitude of people packing the receiving area of the Duke of Stanford’s town house. “Remind me why I’m here again,” he asked his far better dressed, more attractive, and more gregarious identical twin.
So, identical in theory.
In addition to the spectacles Richard wore and his brother did not, Richard was a good stone and a half lighter than Lucien, who’d filled out in the chest and shoulders in a way Richard hadn’t quite managed yet.
And then there were the spots that had plagued them both from age fourteen. Lucien’s had magically disappeared when he’d turned seventeen but Richard’s were only now clearing.
Yes, identical, but different. Richard smirked at the thought.
“You’re here for the girls,” Lucien reminded him, somehow able to speak while smiling, a new skill and something that must have been on the curriculum at Eton those last two years—the two Richard had skipped, instead going straight to university.
Richard snorted. “Yes, because all the girls were so impressed by the way I trod upon—” He made a frustrated tsking sound. “The devil! I can’t even recall the poor girl’s name.”
“Nobody remembers that incident except you,” Lucien said. “Well, and likely her. I don’t recall her name, either. You need to stop thinking that nobody likes you, Rich. If you just put yourself out a bit, you’d see.”
Richard could not believe his twin could be so oblivious of the insults, mocking names, and even an ode that had circulated about Richard this Season. He could only think that Lucien was so insensible because he was falling deeper in love by the hour and could see nothing other than one spectacularly beautiful face, whether she was in the room or not.
“And,” Lucien added, “if a roomful of pretty women isn’t enough reason to be here, remember your promise to Mama.”
“Oh, that’s hitting below the belt,” he muttered.
Lucien merely smirked.
Unfortunately, what his brother said was true. If Richard hadn’t—in an extremely weak moment—promised their mother to stick it out for one Season, he could have been tramping the Fenlands and adding to his already considerable beetle collection.
But their mother, Baroness Ramsay, had chosen the perfect time to corner him—just after he and Lucien had returned from a year of unfettered hedonism on the Continent—and he had foolishly capitulated.
So, here he was. Thank God it was getting near the end of the Season because he wasn’t sure how much more tomfoolery he could bear. In Richard’s opinion, a London Season was remarkably like a term at Eton, but with girls to join in the mockery.
Richard sighed and scanned the crowd. And then immediately wished he hadn’t. Because, dead ahead, was Sebastian Fanshawe, the Duke of Dowden and Richard’s chief tormentor from Eton.
“Good Lord,” he muttered beneath his breath, turning so that the other man mightn’t see him.
Dowden hadn’t changed a whit in the almost three years since Richard had last seen him. He was still the physical embodiment of male perfection, tall, broad shouldered, golden-haired and blue eyed. And he still had the same punishing wit and barbed tongue.
It didn’t matter what Richard did or said, Dowden would abuse him. And only the two of them knew the reason why.
The names, digs, and even a snide ode that some wit had composed about him didn’t bother Richard any more now than they had at school.
That said, it was a damned shame that Dowden had so much influence over the ladies.
Especially over one girl in particular: Miss Celia Trent.
Just thinking Miss Trent’s name gave Richard a heavy feeling in his groin—an unfortunate development with the potential to embarrass him right here in the middle of the Duke of Stanford’s ballroom if Richard wasn’t careful.
He wasn’t the only bloke who suffered such a physical reaction to the woman’s sensual, almost overripe beauty, but he was the only man in the room whose twin was madly in love with her.
Richard felt like a dirty dog about the way his body reacted to the woman his brother hoped to marry, but he was a human animal in his prime breeding years and he could hardly control his body’s reaction to such stimulus.
But he could control his behavior. And so he behaved respectfully and with reserve toward the object of his lust and his brother’s love.
Not that his actions mattered to Miss Trent since she seemed to have taken an aversion to Richard before they’d even met.
Lucien leaned close to him and said, “I’m going to speak to Celia’s father tomorrow.”
Richard groaned. “Why do you feel that you have to marry her, Luce? Just because you kissed her?”
Lucien hissed. “Would you keep your bloody voice down?” He glanced around, as if anyone else cared about their conversation. “You know I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. Long before the kiss.”
“Yes, but you only started mentioning marriage since that irritating lawn party a few days ago—which was also the same day—”
“Yes, yes, you already announced that, thank you very much. It so happens that that particular . . . issue is what has made the matter, er, pressing.”
Lucien rolled his eyes. “You know why.”
“I don’t, actually. It’s not as if you ruined her.” Richard snorted at the words. “Ruined her,” he repeated. “How stupid and dramatic that sounds. Have you ever given any thought to that phrase and what it means? As if she were some sort of object, like a plate you dropped and ruined because it is now broken. It’s not as if kissing—or even sexual intercourse—can only happen one time, so how can you ruin a woman by having sex with her? I have sex with delightful regularity. And yet nobody says that I am ruined.”
Lucien was staring at him in a familiar way. Richard could almost predict his brother’s next words: What is wrong with you?
“What?” he asked when Luce only stared.
“Mother must have dropped you on your head. That is all I can think of to account for it.”
“Besides,” Richard continued, ignoring the tired insult, “I saw her after you kissed her. I can tell you, without equivocation, that she most certainly did not appear ruined. Perhaps you should think on it a few days.”
“I don’t want to. There have to be dozens of men soliciting her father for her hand.”
Richard wanted to ask why they’d do so if she was so clearly ruined but kept that unhelpful question to himself.
Instead, he said, “Maybe some of them have also—”
One dangerous look from Lucien’s narrowed eyes froze the rest of the words in his throat.
Instead, he soothed his twin. “Even if there are a hundred men, none of them can be more eligible than you. Indeed, you possess the only thing Trent is looking for in a son-in-law: lots and lots of brass. Even I, as woefully ignorant of ton gossip as I am, know the man is below the hatches.” He smirked. “In fact, if Miss Trent knocks you back, her father would probably marry you himself.”
Richard could see his brother wasn’t listening. “Are you sure about this, Luce? You’ve hardly had a chance to live life or explore the world. We had a smashing time on our trip, didn’t we?”
“Well, don’t you think—”
“I love her.” Lucien’s voice was low and firm.
Love. Richard rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh at the ridiculous word. It was his contention that human beings were not designed for monogamy. He strongly suspected what his brother was feeling was really lust.
Even if he did credit love as actually existing, he doubted that a person could fall in love with somebody when allowed no more than a few minutes a week to chat with the object of his desire.
Richard considered trying to tell his brother that it was his breeding imperative that was driving him to distraction and sending him to Miss Trent’s father’s house tomorrow, hat in hand.
But that was a subject on which his mother had told him he must be circumspect.
“People don’t like being compared to ducks or beetles or horses, Richard. You must reserve your observations on man’s biology for those who can appreciate and understand them.”
Lucien was not one of those people, so there was no point in arguing.
Besides, Richard could understand his brother’s fascination—if not love—for Miss Celia Trent.
Before meeting Miss Trent, Richard had believed that all healthy, attractive, unattached females under the age of forty were largely the same. Which was to say desirable. He’d never felt his brother’s brand of madness for one woman in particular.
But one look at Miss Trent’s gorgeous face, voluptuous body, and lively blue eyes had turned him into a gaping fool just like every other man—married or single.
The male populace’s reaction to this one woman was laughable, really. Because, as attractive as Miss Trent was, there were dozens and dozens of other women who went unnoticed while the men of the ton clamored like a pack of hounds after a single female.
He had observed the same thing in the animal kingdom. Or at least as much of the animal kingdom as he’d had the opportunity to study in his few years.
To his way of thinking, people were no better than the gaggle of geese that roamed Lessing Hall, his parents’ country home, terrorizing the populace, both human and animal.
Every year for as long as Richard could remember the two dominant ganders—Wellington and Soult—had warred over a white tufted goose named Harriet. The two males would de-feather each other and end up battered and bloody in their determination to have Harriet.
Meanwhile, dozens of perfectly fine geese went unbred.
Richard glanced around the ballroom that lay below them: yes, the same thing was true here. Except not geese, of course, but hundreds of perfectly breedable young women, a great many of whom were hiding in corners while only a handful were chosen to dance time and time again.
Slave to his animal impulses that he was, Richard caught himself searching the room for Miss Celia Trent.
He shook his head; really, he was no better than a gander, every bit as driven to de-feather all the other males in his vicinity in his pursuit of Celia Trent.
No, not that; she is to be Luce’s wife.
Beside him, Lucien heaved a put-upon sigh. “Try not to wear that expression, Rich.”
Richard turned to meet Lucien’s light brown eyes—identical in color to Richard’s, although only half the size since they weren’t magnified by spectacles—and found his brother frowning.
“The one you’re wearing right now.”
The receiving line inched forward.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll need to be a bit more specific, Luce—I know your vocabulary is limited, but give it a go.”
“You get this look—as if you’re observing mankind’s foibles from a lofty height.”
“It’s true, and I’ve seen the same look when you’re categorizing beetles or watching animals copulate.”
Richard laughed. “Oh, and what look is that?”
Lucien’s features shifted until his expression was smirky and heavy-lidded.
Richard had to admit it was an expression that made him want to plant his brother a facer.
“I don’t look like that,” he objected.
“Not right now. Right now you look annoyed and your eyebrow is doing that thing.” Lucien sounded jealous.
Richard snorted; the one thing that he could do that his perfect brother hadn’t yet mastered was lifting his eyebrows independently of each other. You’d think that being well liked, more athletic, and the Earl of Davenport would be enough for his slightly older twin. But no: Luce coveted Richard’s eyebrow thing, too.
“I realize the expression is just a defense when you’re nervous,” Lucien went on, with the assurance of a person who knew Richard almost as well as he knew himself. “But it makes you look like a right arrogant, suspicious . . .”
“What?” he asked when his brother broke off. When Lucien didn’t answer, Richard followed his gaze.
Lady Stephanie Powell and Miss Celia Trent had placed themselves in a position to be better observed by his brother and all the other young bucks, most of whom arrived at these affairs as late as possible.
Richard knew the young women’s plumage display was for his brother rather than himself, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.
Miss Trent’s hourglass figure, ultramarine blue eyes, and mink-colored curls were an attractive contrast to her friend’s slender, blond wholesomeness.
“Smile,” Lucien hissed as they reached the front of the line and he bowed over the hand of their hostess.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” Lucien said in a suave, sophisticated, grown-up voice that Richard didn’t yet possess.
“Good evening, ma’am,” Richard echoed, his voice breaking in the middle of his three-word sentence.
“Viscount Redvers,” the duchess spoke his name with a look of amusement on her handsome face, her gaze on Richard’s cravat.
Does it really look that bad?
With the gauntlet of the receiving line over, they headed toward a scene that looked remarkably like the descriptions he’d read of Roman gladiatorial pits.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered as they fought their way through the bodies. “Why don’t they open a door?”
“The Regent is expected,” Lucien explained.
Even Richard, who as good as lived in a cave—well, it was actually shared lodgings off Sidney Street—knew the Regent had a pathological fear of fresh air.
“Davenport, old man,” someone ahead of Lucien called out.
“Beaky,” Lucien replied, grinning at his best mate.
“Hallo there, Redvers. Didn’t expect to see you here,” Viscount Beakman said.
“I needed to use a bloody pitchfork to get him here,” Lucien said, looking in the direction where Miss Trent had last been spotted. But it was impossible to see more than a wall of people in either direction and none of them was Celia Trent.
“Could I grab you for just a tick, Davenport? I’ve got that thing to ask you about.”
Lucien frowned. “Thing?”
Beaky gave Richard a significant look. “You know—the thing.”
“Ah, yes. That thing,” Lucien said, comprehension dawning, cutting a last, yearning look toward the ballroom. “But I’ve not got terribly long.”
“No, no, it shan’t take but a minute. Let’s go over to the cardroom. A man can’t hardly hear himself think in here.”
Luce grabbed Richard’s shoulder. “Don’t sneak off the minute I turn my back,” he warned him, and then pushed his way into the sea of bodies.
Richard sighed; here was the beginning of yet another long, tedious evening.
Celia watched the two brothers leave the receiving line and then disappear into the crowd.
“It is difficult to credit that they’re supposed to be twins,” Stephanie said to Celia, not bothering to lower her voice.
Millie Bowles, standing on Steff’s other side, tittered and leaned toward them, employing her fan to cover her mouth but actually raising her voice. “It’s difficult to believe they’re even brothers, not to mention identical twins.”
“Oh look, there’s Phyllida Singleton,” Steff said, her glorious green eyes fixed on a slender dark-haired girl greeting several of the other homely, impoverished, or otherwise unpopular wallflowers who were clustered together in a corner.
“Is that the same shabby yellow ball gown she wore to the Kittridge, Oldham, and Acton balls?” Millie asked with an avid smirk.
“I doubt she owns three identical, shabby yellow ball gowns,” Celia said sharply, earning a hurt look from Millie and an amused one from Steff.
“What’s wrong with you tonight, Ceelie?” Steff asked. “You’re in a positively savage mood.”
“Nothing.” That sounded too curt so she added, “I’m just not interested in chattering about people who aren’t even worth a moment of my time—like Phyllida Singleton.”
Her words caused more tittering, and she knew the cut would make its way to Phyllida’s ears before the evening was over. Well, so be it. The unfortunate female should appreciate getting any attention, even if it was cruel.
Some part of Celia’s mind cringed at her appalling thoughts and words, but she shoved her qualms aside with practiced brutality.
Celia let the other two women sharpen their claws on Phyllida as she caught sight of a familiar pair of broad shoulders and a golden head. And just as quickly lost sight of Lord Davenport when he disappeared in the direction of the cardroom, leaving his brother to stand alone.
Something about the sight of Richard Redvers just standing there made her jaws clench. Rather than appear anxious or self-conscious, he surveyed the denizens of the ballroom from his taller-than-average height with the confidence of a general observing a conquered battlefield.
Didn’t the man care that he was the butt of so many ton jokes?
Lily Kendall drifted up to their group. “Did you see who Lord Davenport brought with him again?”
“We already saw,” Millie confirmed.
“Why does he bother?” Lily muttered. “I’ve never seen such a lump in my life.”
“He asked Maria Trevallion to dance at Lady Warnocke’s ball and the poor thing couldn’t think of a way to avoid it. He trod on her skirt and ripped off most of the flounce, taking part of the skirt with it.”
“I heard he ripped off so much that she was almost naked.”
They all twittered over the well-worn piece of gossip.
Celia studied the man in question. He appeared to be staring blankly at the dance floor, his thick spectacles glinting under the light of several hundred candles, looking as if he’d fallen asleep while standing up.
Speaking objectively, Richard did look like his brother, but his appearance was like Lucien Redvers’s reflection in a warped mirror, with spots, although she’d noticed those had begun to fade. He was just as tall but gawky—too slender—and his clothing was a disgrace, rumpled and without any style.
His lips appeared thinner than Lord Davenport’s full, sensual mouth—a mouth more than one young lady had sighed herself to sleep over—but Celia suspected that was due to the odd smirk he seemed to wear in repose.
He stood alone and appeared unconcerned as humanity washed around him like the incoming tide rushing around rocks on the shore.
Celia envied him that—the ability to be comfortable in his own skin. If she were standing all alone like that she’d have developed hives all over her body by now.
That’s why she made every effort to ensure she was never in his position.
Almost as if he’d heard her thoughts—he turned in her direction. His expression was lofty and contemptuous: as if he were examining one of his beetles. No, not that, she corrected. Because if he were doing that he’d probably look interested. Instead, he was looking at her as if she were a bluebottle fly or some other common insect that wouldn’t merit a second of his time.
Perhaps he is correct in his assessment, Celia. After all, what is interesting about you other than your looks?
Ah, touché, she mentally congratulated the inner voice that critiqued her every thought and action.
“Is he a simpleton, do you think?” Millie asked in her piercing voice.
“If you don’t keep your voice down, he might think you are interested, and you will be his next dance partner,” Celia said coolly.
Millie flushed, but the others chuckled.
“What? Are you suddenly feeling sorry for him?” Steff demanded, her eyes slyly flickering in the direction of Lucien, who’d emerged from the cardroom.
“I’m not—but that doesn’t mean I want to make a spectacle of myself.”
Millie’s eyes became glassy at the implied criticism, her chin quivering.
Celia wanted to stop talking about Richard Redvers.
In fact, she’d like to forget the man, altogether.
No, what you want to do is forget your horrid behavior toward him these past months.
Fine. I would like to forget that, too. But it wasn’t my intention that mocking Richard Redvers would become everyone’s amusement of choice.
It wasn’t your intention, but you did everything in your power to make it happen.
Celia was sick and tired of arguing with her conscience—a battered, bruised, and malnourished thing that refused to die no matter how badly she abused it.
Besides, the accusation wasn’t fair. While Celia might have spread the rumors and planted the barbs, it was Sebastian who’d conceived of them.
The Duke of Dowden started it, but you fanned the flames, Celia.
Sebastian had been relentless; his quips and slights and comments were cunning and cruel and spread like wildfire. He was so adept at sowing lies that most people never guessed they came from him. Or her.
At least Celia hoped none of the people around them—with the exception of Steff and Sebastian—ever connected her with any of the cruelty this Season.
Part of the reason that Celia had joined in the baiting was the same as everyone else’s: to make sure that she didn’t become the butt of Sebastian’s rapier sharp wit.
But more importantly, she’d done everything that Sebastian told her to do because she knew he could wreck her.
He had told her he would.
“You want to become Countess of Davenport, my girl, and there is no need to deny it. But even with a face that could launch a thousand ships, you won’t be able to land the handsome young earl without some help. You’ll need invitations to the finest events.” Sebastian had given her a smile that could probably launch no small number of ships, itself.
But wasn’t that how it was in nature? Often the most beautiful creatures were also the deadliest.
Celia had returned his pleasant, utterly empty, smile. “What makes you think I can’t secure such invitations on my own?”
The duke had grinned, exposing his pointed canine teeth. “Oh, my dear, sweet, innocent girl. It would take so very little to ensure that the only ballroom you ever see the inside of is a public assembly room.”
Celia had been too stunned to reply.
“Don’t ruffle your feathers, my lovely. I will guarantee you entrance to every single function of any note. All I want in return is a little assistance.”
“I don’t understand. What can I do that would possibly help you in any way?”
“You can do whatever I tell you.”
And that had been the beginning of it all; Celia had become part of Sebastian’s inner circle, an esteemed, but not particularly comfortable position to occupy.
A person needed a long spoon to sup with such a dangerous man. Even his ex-lovers—gossip suggested—suffered when Sebastian was finished with them.
The Duke of Dowden was wealthy, gorgeous, and had evaded matchmaking mamas for almost five years.
And, for reasons of his own—reasons she’d never inquired about—he had a vehement hatred for Richard Redvers.
Once Celia had agreed to Sebastian’s demands—not that she’d ever had any choice—he had made good on his promise, somehow managing to get her invitations to parties and balls and routs and a half-a-hundred other affairs she never would have attended without his connections.
And all she’d needed to do was spread a bit of mischief.
And create a bit yourself—don’t forget that.
Celia winced at the reminder of the vicious “Ode to Odious” she’d written, which made it painfully clear who Odious was meant to be.
Other than Sebastian, only Steff knew who’d written it, and that had been by mistake.
Celia would never have told the sly beauty anything private. She knew that Lady Stephanie had befriended her for two reasons, and neither one was because she actually liked Celia’s company. First, she wanted to be seen associating with the only woman who could compete with her physical beauty.
And second, she was Sebastian’s cousin and did whatever Sebastian wanted.
So Steff had become Celia’s bosom companion and the two of them had served up a constant buffet of cruel gossip with a smile.
Had Celia sacrificed Richard Redvers, Phyllida Singleton, and dozens of others like them on the altar of her own ambition?
You know you have, Celia.
But I’ll make it all up to Richard when we’re sister and brother.
And how is that?
I’ll bring him into fashion—introduce him to women who are not wallflowers. There are dozens of things I can do to help him.
Her conscience enjoyed a robust laugh.
Celia fumed in silence.
“I’ve heard he’s quite brilliant and went to university two years early.” Millie’s shrill voice cut through her uncomfortable thoughts.
“Studying to be a vicar,” Steff said with a dismissive sniff.
“No, he’s one of that sort who goes about collecting beetles.”
“Ewww!” All five of them shivered with disgust.
“Beetles!” Milly screeched.
Either the word itself or Millie’s piercing voice drew a glance from the subject in question.
“Oh no! He’s looking at us,” Lily Kendall hissed.
He appeared to be, but then his attention was caught by Phyllida Singleton, who approached him with another drab-looking female.
Redvers seemed to come to life, a rare smile transforming his usually inscrutable features and making him almost as handsome as his brother.
“Look, he’s going to ask Phyllida Singleton to dance,” Millie said with her penchant for pointing out the obvious.
“He always does; they’re perfect together. An old maid and her specky swain,” Steff said.
The others laughed.
But Celia didn’t join in.
Instead, anger flared up inside her as she watched the pair. If Richard Redvers had even an ounce of sensibility he would flee London and never attend another ton function.
And if he disappeared, then Celia could stop. She could just stop.
But he was stubborn and stupid and arrogant and insisted on remaining.
And so she was driven to ever greater heights of cruelty.
She needed it all to end, and end soon, or she’d go mad.
Please God, please let Lucien give me some sign tonight . . . some hint . . . and let this horrid, horrid Season come to an end.
If I were you, Celia, I wouldn’t be so eager to attract the Almighty’s attention.
Once again Celia had to admit the truth of such moralizing cautions. Given her behavior, she was far more likely to attract punitive lightning bolts than divine benedictions.
All five of them watched in silence as Richard Redvers led the plainly gowned wallflower out to the dance floor.
That was where Celia should be right now—on the ballroom floor, dancing. But she’d purposely kept most of her card free for Lucien because he usually claimed two dances right away. But not tonight.
No, tonight he’d blithely gone off to the cardroom and left her here.
Left her to watch his brother and Phyllida Singleton enjoying themselves.
They might be unpopular, but even a fool could see that both outcasts felt confident and loved and secure. Neither of them would ever have to worry that they’d return home one evening to find all their possessions tossed onto the street.
Celia tasted the coppery tang of blood and stopped chewing her cheek, forcing herself to breathe and relax.
You don’t have the luxury of relaxing, my dear Celia; you need to take care of matters before time runs out.
What am I supposed to do? Club Lord Davenport over the head and drag him to the nearest vicar?
Her lips twitched a little at the mental picture.
But the smile was short-lived. She had already jeopardized her fragile reputation by allowing Lucien to detach her from the crowds at not one, but three events.
The young earl had been a perfect gentleman the first two times, doing no more than holding her hand, his behavior forcing Celia to all but launch herself at him the last time they’d been alone together.
Even then, he’d tried to be the gentleman. “I don’t want to harm your reputation,” he’d protested—but not very strongly—before capitulating and kissing her.
Kissing was a skill that Celia had carefully honed, and by the time she was finished with him, he’d believed that it had been his tongue that had first led the charge and his hands that were to blame for marauding over her body like Viking invaders.
Indeed, if there had been a vicar with a special license standing beside them at the Lorings’ garden party, Lord Davenport would have married her on the spot.
Unfortunately, the only thing present had been his guilt and heartfelt apologies.
And so Celia had been forced to wait and wait and wait.
All the while her father’s finances had taken an alarming turn—downward. He’d informed her not long ago that she’d better catch herself a wealthy husband before he was hauled off to debtor’s prison.
Matters at home—home being the ramshackle collection of rooms he’d leased for the last six months—had become grimmer than ever. They were down to just Henson and a day-maid to wait on them.
And poor old Molly Henson only stayed because she had nowhere else to go.
Which is exactly the choice you’ll have shortly.
Davenport needed to offer for her, and he needed to do it quickly. Celia had planted the seed almost six weeks ago, but there had been little enough time to cultivate the delicate sprout in his thick male brain. And it bothered her to no end that Steff was always around when Celia had any time near Lucien.
Steff was beautiful, wealthy, and had all the connections that Celia lacked. She’d seen the admiring looks Lucien occasionally gave her best friend.
The voice inside her laughed at the words best and friend when applied to Steff, who was as conniving and selfish and petty a person as she ever hoped to meet.
A lot like you, in other words.
Celia could not refute the accusation.
Her head throbbed badly enough to blur her vision, but she forced a bored expression onto her face while she swept the room with eyes sharper than any raptor’s.
She tried to convince herself that all of this—the incessant balls with the same people, the thinly veiled insults about everyone, by everyone, even the people you believed were your friends, and the constant, crushing fear that you would start slipping down the social ladder and not be able to stop— was not only necessary, but enjoyable.
But the lies and cruelty and duplicity became more difficult to maintain by the day.
This was her second Season and Celia had seen that it was a short step from where she was standing to where Phyllida Singleton lurked with the other undesirables. The only way to keep from becoming Phyllida was to make sure somebody else filled that position. It was cruel and unpleasant, but it was the way of the ton.
Three young men came to ask them to dance but Celia begged off, offering a vague excuse.
Soon Steff and Millie and their partners were swirling around the floor along with Richard and Phyllida. The last pair weren’t exactly swirling and she saw the awkward man tread on Phyllida’s toes. It must have hurt, but Phyllida just smiled up at him and said something that made him laugh.
Celia had to admit Richard Redvers was considerably more handsome—a lot more like his glorious, golden twin—when he smiled like that.
She suspected that the gilt on Lucien Redvers was largely a by-product of his money and position rather than any real difference in the twins’ outward appearance. As the younger son of an earl, Richard would have only an allowance while Lucien would get all the delicious money and property and status that went with the Davenport title.
Celia’s eyes narrowed as she watched the two carefree wallflowers laughing and dancing while she stood on the sidelines ignored and neglected.
How dare they flaunt themselves while she stewed alone on the fringes? If they enjoyed each other so much, why didn’t Richard offer for the woman—whose nickname was The Squab? If they—
“What is the belle of the Season doing all by her lonesome?”
Celia started at the sound of Sebastian’s smooth, cool voice.
“Hallo, Sebastian.” She offered her hand and he bowed over it.
“Where is your beau?” Sebastian was tall—a good head taller than most of the people around them—and glanced around the room with a superior smirk. “Is he neglecting you?” His gaze stopped at something on the dance floor and Celia knew what it was even before he spoke. “Ah, Odious and The Squab.”
Celia winced to hear the names—both of which had originated in her mind—spoken out loud.
His lips twitched and he turned his speculative gaze on Celia. “Don’t fret, darling. Your young lordling is not avoiding you; Davenport has been dragooned into helping poor Beaky out of a fix.” Sebastian cocked his head. “But what if I bring the young lordling to you and lay him at your feet?”
Celia swallowed down her self-loathing and smiled up at him, her expression—she hoped—world-weary and bored rather than desperate. “Would you? That would be lovely, Sebastian.”
He chuckled and turned back to the dance floor. “I’m getting the most amusing notion as I stand here. Something . . . devious. Something that will make for a rather infamous end to the Season.”
Celia swallowed. “Infamous?” she asked, aiming for an insouciant tone but almost choking on the terror that shot through her at his words. What, in the name of all that was unholy, had he conceived of now? She had to force the next words to leave her mouth, “Do tell, Sebastian.”
In the years to come, when Celia looked back on that conversation, she would be horrified by how quickly one’s life could change.
She didn’t know it then, but that exact moment—only a few seconds in time—represented a critical fork in the road of her life.
While Celia could never know if the other fork—the one where she denied Sebastian what he asked—would have been better, she would soon learn that it could hardly have been any worse.