About the book
"Take me to your heart. For it's there that I belong, and will never part."
Miss Eloise Mumford, daughter of the late Baron of Saville, is desperately looking for a way out of the repressive ton. Pressured by her mother to marry well, she would much rather live as a spinster in the countryside.
The Duke of Harridan, Antony Redmond, is in equal need of an escape. The black sheep of his own family, it is common knowledge among the Ton’s gossip that the “monster” killed his own father to take the title.
Now living with his sister in London, he has a peculiar proposal for Eloise: they can pretend to be courting. That way, she will be left alone by most suitors, while he will be seen as desirable among the ladies of the Ton.
Caught in a web of lies, they are too busy to see the danger lurking in the shadows. Antony’s past returns to haunt him, and Eloise must decide: Can she ever truly trust the Beast?
The manor was unlike anything Eloise Mumford had ever seen. The long road led their carriage past lush green grass and rows of perfectly cut topiary so big, they towered above any person who might walk past. And the manor itself, well it was stunning. Enormous windows, glowing from inside, bathed the lawn in soft golden light. A lattice of roses crawled up the west wall, but in the sort of way that was clearly intentional, the greatest of care taken to make it look as stylish as possible. The huge double-wide doors were already open, music and light spilling out, and as the carriage approached, Eloise caught a glimpse of the beautiful foyer inside.
Beside her, Mother shifted. The carriage was cramped with four of them inside. Although it was luxurious by most standards, that didn't mean there was ample space, especially not considering Mother's ridiculous ballgown, with sleeves so puffy they kept nudging into Eloise's personal space. "Now, you two be on your best behavior," she said to Eloise and her brother, Charles, although it was mostly aimed at Eloise.
Across from her, Charles nodded. He looked handsome in his fitted black waistcoat and shirt, although his boots hadn't been shined, leaving them looking a little out of place. It was the kind of thing some men would not think of. "We'll do our best," he answered with a grin, leaving Mother to huff and sigh.
"I can keep them in line," Margaret piped up. Poor Margaret had only come along to this ball so that Eloise wouldn't feel so alone. She hated these things, but an invite wasn't something to turn down lightly, and it was good to have company.
The carriage began to slow, rolling up to the elegant stairs that led inside. The one good thing to be said for this carriage was how smoothly it moved, as if they weren't even moving at all. Eloise and Margaret both peeked out of the window, admiring Tanbury Manor with wide eyes.
"It's beautiful," Margaret murmured.
"It's just a house, girls, and no more grand than our own," Mother complained. It wasn't true, though, because Tanbury Manor was dazzling in its splendor, and every time Eloise looked, there was something new to see. Mother clearly didn't agree, turning with disinterest to allow the coachman to help her down.
Before climbing out himself, Charles fixed them both with stern looks, what Eloise lovingly referred to as the 'worried older brother glare'. "Please, try to blend in. Dance, drink and enjoy the food. Don't draw attention to yourselves."
"We didn't plan to," Eloise shot back, her full lips pursed. She didn't attend balls often, but she knew what was expected of her. It would have been nice if her own brother, as protective as he was, had a little more faith in her. She might have said those things too, if Charles hadn't already descended the small carriage steps.
"Miss," the coachman offered out a hand, his face expressionless.
"Thank you." She took his hand, leaning some of her weight on him so she could lift her dress and step down. The shoes were terribly uncomfortable, but her deep red dress swished around her ankles and hung loosely from her waist, so at least something about this outfit was comfortable.
Margaret exited last, stumbling a little when her feet hit solid ground. "Sorry," she murmured, straightening out her own mustard yellow dress, "just a mild slip. I'm so clumsy."
Eloise reached out to link an arm through hers, smiling gently. "Oh you'll be fine. Tonight is supposed to be fun, and I'm sure you will enjoy it."
"I don't think it's me we have to worry about," Margaret said, although she lowered her voice, as if afraid to be heard. "I think your mother took you along for a reason, and it wasn't for fun."
Casting a glance toward Mother, who was currently adjusting the pile of curls that was her hair, "You might be right. She only ever brings me to social events for one reason, men." At twenty years old, Eloise still hadn't found a suitor. Neither had her two sisters, and it was a source of great concern for Diana Mumford.
"Girls, would you hurry up? It's rude to be late."
Casting each other a look, Margaret and Eloise hurried on. Eloise's heels clicked as she ascended the steps, but the noise was quickly drowned out by the sound of a slow violin piece accompanied by, perhaps, a cello.
"The music is beautiful," Margaret whispered, a smile gracing her features.
"It is," Eloise agreed. When she nodded, a few strands of golden hair fell across her forehead, having slipped loose from their pins. Wincing, she quickly adjusted it before Mother could see.
The foyer was a big, somewhat drafty space with elegant wooden stairs leading to the upper landing. To their left, a wide archway led to what Eloise assumed was the drawing room. To the right was the ballroom. Already it was filled with people, dresses of every color creating a rainbow as ladies moved past. The music was louder, although she couldn't see the musicians from here, and it created a perfect scene of beauty.
Behind them, a few more people had arrived. A young couple strode past, the woman's laugh soft and cheerful. They waved at Eloise and her family as they passed, but were clearly eager to join the ball.
Mother, of course, entered first, with her head held high and a smile on her painted lips. She was greeted by Lord Tanbury, his smile carefully measured, and then by the tiny Lady Tanbury who stood to his left.
Margaret and Eloise were nudged forward by Charles, who hovered just behind them. "Go on," he murmured.
Somehow Eloise managed to force a smile onto her face. It wasn't that she didn't want to be here, truly, but she knew Mother always had an ulterior motive. Knowing what that motive was, all of Eloise's excitement had vanished. Yet she stepped forward anyway into the noise and crowd of the ball and accepted Lord Tanbury's offered hand.
"I'm glad to see you and your mother are here, Charles too. What of your sisters?"
Clair and Sophie, known as the twins, were currently at home ill, or so they claimed; but Eloise had the feeling they simply wanted to avoid this social gathering. "I'm afraid they are both terribly unwell," she answered awkwardly, "but they so wish they could be here."
"How unfortunate," Lord Tanbury replied. "I hope you enjoy yourself, even if they cannot."
"Thank you." Eloise shifted, her heels now beginning to squish her toes, but offered a smile to Lady Tanbury as she passed. "Thank you for having us; we're delighted to be here." Although hardly known for being the most ladylike or disciplined, Eloise was trying.
Lady Tanbury simply offered a strained smile, "It's good to see you. Please enjoy yourself."
Nodding, Eloise swiftly moved on. The awkward greetings were the worst part of any event, and she let out a sigh of relief as she darted over to her mother. Charles and Margaret were close behind, and Margaret looked just as relieved as Eloise felt to leave Lord and Lady Tanbury.
"Oh," Mother exclaimed, and Eloise jumped. Even above the music and chatter, her voice carried. "I think I see Mrs. Barnett and her son, William."
Margaret shot Eloise a knowing look. William was nice enough, with a kind smile and bright blue eyes, but he was also the dullest person Eloise had ever met. If Mother hoped that he was a fitting suitor, she was wrong. "Say hello; take Charles with you. Margaret and I will stay right here."
"You should come with us," Mother offered, eyes sparkling, "William does so like you, Eloise."
She cringed inwardly, catching herself at the last moment when Charles sent her a harsh look. "Thank you, but William only likes me because of a false idea of me he has in his head. He doesn't actually know me."
"That's because you never take the time to talk to him, or any suitable men for that matter." Mother's hazel eyes narrowed, and she huffed out a breath heavy enough to have the curls across her forehead bouncing. "Very well. I can see there is simply no convincing you."
It wasn't often that Mother let her off so easily, and relief lightened her chest as Eloise watched Mother go. Soon enough she had disappeared into the crowd of colorful dresses and long tail coats. Relaxing, Eloise let out a breath and shook her head only for that one lock of blonde hair to fall across her face again. "Oh again," she muttered, reaching up to tug the pin from her head.
"Here, allow me." Margaret plucked the hair pin from Eloise's hands, delicately twisting the curl around her finger before sweeping it back. Margaret had always been so good at styling hair, which was unfortunate given that her own hair was an unruly mess of red curls that refused to stay in any kind of updo. Yet she handled Eloise's hair with the utmost care, carefully sliding the pin back into place.
"There, that should do it.”
Eloise beamed appreciatively, but then her gaze slid past Margaret and that smile fell. "Oh no," she sighed, her gaze fixed on the two tall, slender women now approaching. "Don't look, but it's Isabel and Jane." She hadn't thought, but in hindsight it was obvious that they would be here. They were a part of all of Mother's social circles and always appeared when Eloise least wanted them to.
She had hoped that perhaps neither of them had spotted her, but Jane's gaze lazily drifted over, a smirk on her face, and Eloise knew it was too late. The music had shifted to something more upbeat, a beautiful piano piece that had the ballroom buzzing, and Jane's awful chittering cut through the lovely music like a knife. "Oh would you look at who's here. Poor Eloise Mumford can't even get her hair to look nice."
"At least she has natural beauty on her side. Look at Margaret, dressed up like a dog in doll's clothes." Isabel's own grin matched her sister's, but her thin lips made it look more like a grimace.
Margaret instinctively inched closer to Eloise, who reached out to link their arms. "This dress is my mother's," Margaret muttered, her eyes narrowed, "and it looks lovely."
"Oh, do you think so? Whoever told you so is a liar." Jane's beady eyes swiveled to Eloise. "Lying to make your friend feel better?"
Eloise felt frustration bubble in her chest. Jane and Isabel loved to criticize them, switching between feigned attempts at 'help' and being downright cruel. It wasn't new nor was it a surprise. But here, confronting them in the middle of a ballroom with people dancing and chatting all around them, was even more tactless than usual. "Margaret looks fantastic," she snapped, "and the dress is far nicer than whatever excessive nonsense you're wearing. Trying to impress somebody?"
Jane paled, but Isabel's smile stayed fixed in place. "You two shouldn't be here. You sorry excuses for women will give the rest of us a bad name." Isabel quirked a brow, as if daring them to respond. "Or are you only here in the hopes of finally finding a suitor? At least you have a chance Eloise, but not even a servant boy would look twice at Margaret here."
Eloise didn't have to look to know Margaret was close to tears. Their linked arms were held tight, Margaret's free hand clamping down on Eloise's forearm with enough force that it hurt. Eloise's blood boiled, and it took all of her strength not to shout at the two terrible women. "We're here to enjoy ourselves, the same as you. Isn't there someone else you could bother?"
The two shared a look, the kind of look only twins understood. Sometimes Eloise's sisters shared the same expression, but on Jane and Isabel it was menacing, cruel. "Well," Isabel spoke with a lilting laugh. "Where would be the fun in that? Poor sweet Margaret here makes a target of herself really, it's her own fault, turning up to Lord Tanbury's looking like that." Isabel batted her long eyelashes, the mock innocence dripping from her.
"Say one more thing about Margaret," Eloise warned, "and you might come to regret it."
Margaret's grip tightened further, not in upset, Eloise realized, but in warning. It was quick, but enough to say don't cause a scene, please.
Biting down on her lip, Eloise forced a breath from her lips. Mother had always criticized her temper, even if Charles found it funny sometimes, and she forced herself to remember Mother's words. Losing your temper feels good in the moment, but it only serves to make things more difficult. With those words in mind, Eloise took a pointed step back, intending to tow Margaret away somewhere quieter.
Jane just had to speak though, didn't she? To their retreating back, she said, "I feel bad for your families most of all, having to live knowing their daughters will be spinsters forever."
Enough. Suddenly Eloise saw red. She whirled, arm slipping from Margaret's, and then she was storming toward the two women, eyes dark with rage. "Be rude to me, I don't care. But the moment you brought Margaret into this, you went too far. Now you talk about our families as if you know them, as if this comes from a source of concern?" She scoffed, arms folded stiffly across her chest. "You have some nerve, don't you?"
Jane and Isabel, who looked identical in their pale blue dresses, hair piled into matching buns, took a step back in perfect sync. Sometimes it was like the two shared one mind, and it only served to fuel Eloise's frustration. Could neither of them think for themselves?
"The two of you disgust me. Don't you dare come near Margaret or me again. I mean it."
People were staring now. The upbeat music continued, undisturbed by their little scene, but the people closest had ceased their dancing, heads turning to stare in wonder. Some stared openly, but most at least had the sense to pretend they were occupied with something else.
Eloise didn't care. These two needed to know that she wouldn't stand for her best friend being treated so horribly, that she wasn't afraid to stand up for herself. "If you even consider talking to either of us again, I'll know," Eloise hissed, her dark gaze flicking between Jane and Isabel. "Believe me, I will-"
"Eloise!" Suddenly Mother was beside her, hands tugging her away from the scene. She was none too gentle either, perfectly shaped nails digging into the flesh of Eloise's bare arm, hands clenched so tightly the knuckles turned white. "You are unbelievable," she murmured, her voice barely audible above the music. It was a beautiful country piece, but there was no chance to enjoy it when her blood was still boiling. Or when Mother fixed her with such a harsh gaze.
"I was defending Margaret," Eloise replied with a sigh. She still felt the odd curious gaze turn her way, but it was short lived. Now that the excitement was over, everyone was returning to the dance. It was a small relief, and some of the anger seeped from her. "Those two are terrible Mother, and I couldn't let them say those things."
Mother paused. They were away from the dancing now, hovering near the edges of the ballroom where it was less busy. Even so, there were enough people that Mother kept her voice low, lest she be overheard. "This is not how a lady acts, Eloise. You cannot go around drawing such attention to yourself, regardless of why you think it's necessary."
"I don't want to hear it, Eloise! You're twenty now, old enough to know better." Mother sighed, eyes turned to the ceiling. It stretched up far above them, ornate and domed. "Sometimes I worry, you know. If you keep acting like this you will never find a suitor. You have to conduct yourself in the correct way if you ever want to marry."
Wasn't that just the thing? Eloise didn't want to marry, and had made that perfectly clear over the years. Nose crinkling, she turned her scowl to the ballroom. Margaret had disappeared into the crowd. Eloise felt a wash of guilt for leaving her with Jane and Isabel, but Mother hadn't given her much choice. Squinting into the crowd that swirled and danced, she couldn't see any sign of Margaret at all.
"Are you even listening?"
Blinking, Eloise snapped her attention back to her mother. "Yes," she answered, forcing a smile. It didn't reach her eyes, but instead hung awkwardly from her lips. Now that she had calmed somewhat, her hot anger had simmered down to a dull, disappointed feeling: disappointed that this event had turned sour so quickly, disappointed that Mother never took her side and disappointed that, once again, it was all about her eligibility to marry.
Patting her shoulder, Mother smiled sympathetically. "I understand that this isn't what you want, dear, but this is what's best for you. At least tell me that you understand that?"
"No, I don't understand it at all," Eloise snapped. She was restless now, her feet hurt from these awful shoes and her dress was itchy, not to mention how hot it was in here. Frankly she just wanted to go home, but that wasn't an option, not even after the scene she had caused. The men and women here had short memories, and soon enough it would fade to the back of their minds.
Mother's features scrunched into a look of disgust. It was an expression becoming increasingly familiar the older Eloise grew, especially in recent years. "The entire reason we are here, is to try and find you a suitable man. There are plenty; William Barnett being just one of dozens."
She couldn't help it, Eloise physically recoiled at the name. Truthfully, there were much worse men than William, but he was so dull, eager to please to the point of annoyance. He would have done anything to make Eloise smile, or anyone smile really, and she wondered if it ever got tiring for him. Casting another long glance out across the ballroom, she sighed. "I don't want to look for a potential husband. I came tonight because I thought it might be fun, and because Charles wanted me here."
A thought occurred to her then, one that made sudden realization slam into her. Charles had wanted her here, even though he knew she usually hated these sorts of events. He had convinced her that it would be enjoyable, even been the one to suggest she and Margaret attend together.
"Charles is helping you, isn't he?"
At least Mother didn't try to deny it. Somehow she still managed to look elegant even as she threw a hand up in defeat, her brows furrowing into harsh lines. "He worries about you too, dear. If you don't marry soon you may never have that chance. Charles only wants what is best for you."
What's best for you. How often had she heard those words? Everybody was so concerned about what was best for her, without actually stopping to consider what that was. It certainly wasn't marriage, being stuck with a man she hardly knew and didn't love, all because it was expected of her. "I don't want any of that," she snapped. "I don't want marriage or a leisurely life in the country somewhere, or a dozen children running about my feet."
"But children are so wonderful-"
"That's what you think. Am I not allowed to have my own opinions?"
"Not when it comes to this, Eloise. You have to stop and consider not just what you want, but what is right."
So deep into their argument, neither women had even noticed Charles appear until he was right by Mother's side. His hazel eyes were bright, his smile easy. Oblivious to the tension in the air, he took Mother's elbow and gently turned her to face something across the room. "I have good news," he chirped.
"Thank goodness," Mother replied and her entire body relaxed. "I could use some good news."
"I was talking to a few of the men, there are some very prestigious people at this dance tonight." He paused, gesturing to a small group of tall, well dressed gentlemen standing near a table by the musicians. One held a glass of wine, taking delicate sips. The other two had their heads thrown back in laughter, but Eloise saw that they were both, admittedly, rather handsome with dark hair and strong jawlines.
"So you've spoken to some of the men here," Eloise grumbled. "I don't see why that should mean anything." A lie. She knew exactly where this was going, she just didn't want to hear him say it. Cringing, she turned away from the men, blocking them from her view.
"Well," Charles said with a grin, "they want to dance with you, of course. Actually there is a whole slew of men who would love the chance to spend some time with you. Apparently you and Margaret are two of the few eligible women here tonight, and there are plenty of men jumping at the chance to meet you."
Wonderful. Eloise's delicate features formed a frown, her green eyes downcast. Quite honestly, she couldn't bring herself to even look at Charles. Perhaps she should have seen it coming, seeing as he was always so concerned about her unmarried status. Charles was unmarried himself, but it was easier for men. They didn't have so many expectations hovering over them.
"Tell them I can't dance tonight," Eloise murmured, "say I've injured my foot."
"You want me to lie?"
"I want to have my choices respected, but I can see that's too much for you both." Arms folded, Eloise spun on her heel and stormed off, before either of them could say another word. There wasn't even anywhere to go. The ballroom was huge, packed full with bodies spinning and moving, but at the end of the day, she couldn't leave. To be caught leaving a ball before its end was unacceptable. It was something even Eloise wasn't willing to risk.
Letting out a dull sigh, Eloise went in search of the only person who could make her feel better – Margaret.
Eloise found Margaret by the edge of the ballroom, awkwardly tugging at the sleeve of her dress. Margaret wasn't the most fashionably conscious, and her dress had long, loose sleeves instead of the popular short style. Eloise thought she looked lovely, but Margaret herself didn't look pleased at all.
It was Jane and Isabel's fault, obviously, because Margaret had been in a fantastic mood the entire journey here.
"I'm glad I found you," Eloise exclaimed, relief flooding her as she darted closer. Her dress was lightweight, as was the style, and allowed her to sweep over to Margaret with ease. Clasping Margaret's hands in her own, she let out a sigh. "I am so sorry for leaving you. I didn't mean to."
"I know." Margaret smiled weakly, but her usually bright blue eyes were dull. "When your mother decides to do something, nobody can stop her. I hope she wasn't too harsh?"
"No harsher than usual. She's on about marriage again."
Margaret winced. A year younger than Eloise, the looming threat of marriage wasn't quite so dangerously close. "I don't think it's as bad as you believe," she murmured, and Eloise had to strain to hear her. She shifted, bright red curls spilling over her shoulder. "It might be nice, once you find the right man."
Irritation flickered in her chest, but Eloise simply couldn't work up the desire to be angry. Margaret, who had never so much as been asked to dance, didn't know what to make of it all. Sometimes Eloise thought Margaret might quite like to get married, other times it seemed as if she detested the idea. Smiling faintly, she looped an arm around Margaret's waist and tugged her into a fond embrace. "You'll find the perfect man, and you'll live a lovely life in a big manor somewhere. Me, however, well, I've got no interest in such things."
"Do you want to become an old spinster?"
"I can think of worse things." Such a thought would have horrified Mother, but she wasn't here. She and Charles were most likely still searching for her, either that or they had given up and decided to leave her be. Wishful thinking, perhaps.
"You really are strange, aren't you?" Margaret asked, but there was a softness in her voice. The kind of amusement that wasn't making fun, but simply taking delight in her strangeness. "Perhaps it's why we get on so well."
"Perhaps," Eloise agreed with a laugh. Regretfully, she peeled herself away from Margaret's side, smoothing down her crimson dress. "What do you say to us finding ourselves some wine and actually enjoying ourselves?"
Ruffling her mass of curls, Margaret offered a shy nod. "After all that, we deserve it."
There were plenty of servants, dressed in white shirts and carrying huge trays, so it didn't take them long to find the desired drinks. Eloise swept up to a young servant boy, shorter than herself, and picked up two glasses of sparkling champagne. "Thank you," she said, taking a glass in each hand. The boy's brows lifted in surprise. Eloise thought it might have been because she took two glasses, but then she realized it had been in response to her words, as if the idea of being thanked was shocking.
Turning away, Eloise tried not to frown. She met Margaret by a little table with a lace tablecloth, and gently set the drinks down. "Everyone here is so snobbish. I thanked one of the servants and he looked fit to pass out. Does nobody say thank you around here?"
"It's all a show," Margaret agreed. "They have rules and etiquette, things that don't matter, but no basic manners."
"I wish I hadn't bothered to come, but Charles talked me into it. I thought it was because he thought I would enjoy myself."
"But really it was just to trick you into socializing with young, interested bachelors?" Margaret finished. She gave a knowing nod, lifting her glass to take a sip. Her face crinkled in disgust. "This has to be expensive, knowing the Tanburys, but it tastes horrible."
Experimentally, Eloise took a sip. It wasn't bad, sharp but sweet, the carbonation adding an odd texture. It was the aftertaste that appalled her, clinging to the back of her throat long after she swallowed. Setting down the glass, she cringed. "You're right. How can people like this?"
"Because it isn't about the taste, but because drinking it makes you look good?"
"It's always about appearances," Eloise agreed. Perhaps there was something else to drink, a different kind of wine or a flavored cordial. Not everybody here drank alcohol, and women were not allowed to get drunk, so there was probably something nicer. Unfortunately, her desire for a drink was lost.
Margaret parted her lips as if to reply, but her eyes drifted to something else. "Who's that?" she questioned, gesturing toward the ballroom entrance.
Eloise turned. Just then a couple strode past and Eloise's view was lost, but they passed by quickly, allowing her a glimpse of the man Margaret had seen. He was tall and broad shouldered, wearing an elegant red waistcoat almost the same shade as her dress. The rest of his outfit, from shirt to shoes, was several shades of dark grey. His face was turned away, and all she saw of him was dark hair long enough to tuck behind his ear.
"Whoever he is, he's late, and the Tanburys won't look favorably on that." Eloise stood on her toes to get a better look, but it was too crowded for her to see anything more. "I hope he isn't another bachelor that Mother will try to set me up with," she huffed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.
"Speaking of your mother..." Margaret nudged Eloise's shoulder, her attention already focused on something new. "She's coming right for us, and she doesn't look happy."
Eloise winced, tearing her eyes away from the mysterious newcomer, to instead see her mother, expression firm and striding right toward her. She moved swiftly enough to close the space between them surprisingly fast, and yet didn't lose an ounce of elegance.
Eloise didn't care for elegance, and hooked an arm through Margaret's so they could slip into the crowd. They weaved through the ballroom, uncaring for who turned to look, until they found a quiet spot near the back of the room. "I just don't want to deal with her right now," Eloise responded to Margaret's unasked question. They knew each other well enough that sometimes a certain look was all they needed to understand.
Margaret carefully detached her arm from Eloise's grip, her smile sympathetic. "She means well, even if it isn't what you want."
"I know," she admitted. Her green gaze scanned the ballroom for any sign of Mother or Charles, but it seemed they were once again lost. Good. Truthfully Eloise was not looking forward to the ball's end because that meant a carriage ride home. All four of them squeezed into one carriage for thirty minutes, with nowhere to hide.
Sighing, Eloise ran a hand through her hair, then she remembered the newcomer, and her head darted up to search for him. With so many colors swirling around the ballroom, his dark outfit should have stood out, but he was gone.
From the moment Anthony Redmond stepped inside Tanbury Manor, he knew this was a mistake. He had been invited out of politeness because it was expected for him to attend, but nobody wanted him to be there. Not even Anthony himself had any desire to step foot inside this ballroom.
It wasn't long before eyes followed him. Curiosity and disgust flashed in the eyes of everyone he saw. Even those decent enough not to stare openly stole glances when they thought he wasn't looking. It was the same anywhere he went, but in thirty years on this earth, Anthony had never gotten used to it.
"Is that the Duke of Harridan?" he heard a woman murmur. "You know, I heard he killed his Father." Her shrill voice was heard even above the cheerful country music performed by the musicians ahead, and her horrified expression followed Anthony as he strode past.
The ballroom itself was a cavernous room with a domed ceiling that towered far above them. It was intricately carved with golden designs, the same carvings etched into the walls. It was ornate to the point of ridicule, and in its attempts to be beautiful looked honestly awful. Tacky, Anastasia would have said.
As if to prove his point, Anastasia looked up at the ceiling with a curled lip. "The Tanburys know how to throw a ball, but their design choices are horribly tacky. They're trying too hard."
Anthony managed a snorting laugh. Regardless of how poor his mood was, she never failed to make him feel better. "You're right. It must have cost a fortune to have built, but it doesn't look good at all."
"A child could have done a better job." Anastasia was dressed in a beautiful green dress with cream trimmings, the wide boat neck accented with a string of pearls. She looked beautiful in the dim lighting, her black hair shining. Men everywhere adored Anastasia for her looks; she took after their mother, with rich, freckled skin and a delicate face.
Anthony wasn't so lucky. He had taken after Mother too, had adopted her small nose and forest green eyes, but that was where the resemblance ended. While Anastasia's appearance brought welcome attention, Anthony's brought looks of disgust that followed wherever he went. He had been born with a cleft lip, minor by all accounts, only noticeable by the way one side of his top lip twisted when his mouth was closed. The more noticeable issue was how, on that same side, his jaw was set asymmetrically, wider on the left than on the right. It made his entire face look lopsided, only partially concealed by his long hair.
Although it caused him no issues physically, aside from a slight difficulty when eating as a child, Anthony was reminded constantly of his appearance whenever he left his home. Even now, with his hair swept across his face, people still looked on.
Anastasia, who never bothered about the stares, simply swept up to a servant and procured two glasses of sparkling wine. Handing one to Anthony, she said, "I'm glad we came here today. It's good for us to get out once in a while, and for what better reason than a ball."
Her unending enthusiasm brought a reluctant smile to Anthony's twisted lips. "Well I've been to worse," he replied simply, "at least the music is enjoyable."
"Oh, would you calm yourself?" Anastasia grinned, nudging his shoulder with her own. Neither of them were particularly tall, but Anastasia always wore heels, levelling her almost to his height. Taking a delicate sip of her wine, she cast a look across the ballroom. Near the musicians, couples danced. Farther out, people stood chatting by tables in small groups, faces spread into wide smiles.
She appreciated it far more than Anthony did, as he found the entire thing to be a waste of time. Balls like these were only a show of wealth and status, and truthfully he didn't care for them at all, not just because of how awkward it felt to be here either.
"At least pretend you're having fun," Anastasia joked. "You're the Duke of Harridan now, and there are plenty of lovely women here tonight." She looked about the room, her dark eyes settling on two women standing near one of the tables. "See? I'm sure at least one of them would like a dance."
The two women were pretty, Anthony couldn't deny that. One was on the heavier side, with a shock of startlingly ginger hair, but there was a pleasantness about her softness. The woman beside her was taller, more slender, and her blonde hair was done into an elaborate bun with a few loose curls framing her slender face. She looked lovely in her crimson dress. With a note of surprise, he noticed it was a similar shade to his own waistcoat.
"Do you like one of them?" Anastasia asked. "The blonde woman is stunning in that dress, and I do like her hair. I wonder if she has any advice." Tugging at a strand of her own hair, Anastasia stared longingly at the two women.
Anthony rolled his eyes. The ballroom was too hot, and already he was beginning to feel that uncomfortable sort of stuffiness despite the sheer size of the place. "You talk to them," he urged. "I'll... stay here."
"You will do no such thing!" Anastasia sent him a sharp look, but it only lasted a second. Soon enough her expression softened, and she reached out to pat his shoulder. "I know you hate these events, but you have a responsibility as Duke to show up to them. You don't turn down an invitation from the Tanbury's lightly."
Anthony was less concerned about the Tanbury's, and more concerned with everybody else. He knew there were rumors about him. They spread fast in these upper class circles, the rumors twisting and changing until there were a hundred different versions floating around. It was terrible, and yet what could he do?
"Just ask one of them to dance. For me?" Anastasia looked up at him imploringly, her chestnut colored eyes wide with hope. "One dance. Is that too much to ask?"
Anthony simply grunted out, “No thank you,” in reply. Swirling the wine around in the glass, he took a hesitant drink. It was sweeter than what he was used too, almost flowery and not at all enjoyable. Setting the glass down on the nearest table, he grimaced.
A woman swept past, her long dress just shy of the floor. She looked up at him, her pleasant smile turning sour. Without a word she turned in the opposite direction, gaze turned purposefully away. By all accounts it wasn't the worst reaction Anthony had seen, but it still left his mood dampened even further.
"Ignore them," Anastasia insisted. "I mean it. People will find a way to be rude no matter what; they don't need a reason."
"No, but I certainly give them one regardless," he shot back with a scowl. It only made him look more frightening, he knew, but people were going to stare regardless. Running a hand through his long hair, Anthony sighed. Even the delightful music, something usually sure to improve his mood, only brought irritation nagging at the back of his skull.
"At least let us introduce ourselves to Lord and Lady Tanbury, so we can apologize for our tardiness." Anastasia nudged him forward, her head held high to peek over the crowd surrounding them. She must have spotted them, because then she was dragging him back toward the ballroom entrance, where the great double doors stood open.
Lord Tanbury stood just inside, holding a glass of the same wine Anthony had just abandoned. He was short and stocky, beginning to bald, but he had a youthful face that easily made him mistakable for a decade younger. Lady Tanbury stood beside him, smiling in that way that made it clear she was only appeasing whatever it was her husband spoke of.
"Lord Tanbury, it's so good to see you." Anastasia strode over with the confidence of an old friend, brushing dark hair from her face. "And Lady Tanbury, you look as beautiful as ever."
Lord Tanbury greeted her with a bright smile, his gaze sweeping across her. He perhaps lingered a little too long on her exposed neck, fixed on the jut of her slender collarbones. Then he blinked, turning to his wife, and said, "Aren't you so glad Lady Anastasia decided to arrive?"
"Delighted," she replied dully.
"I do apologize for being so late. My brother and I had some trouble on the roads. We have a new horse, you see, and our coachman had an awful time with him."
That part was mostly true. The coachman had a terrible time dealing with the horse, who had decided to be extremely uncooperative, especially on the rough country roads leading to the Tanbury Manor. What Anastasia didn't mention was the half hour leading up to their carriage ride, where Anthony had insisted he wasn't going at all. Yet as always, Anastasia won that argument.
Yet Lord Tanbury didn't know that, and simply smiled in understanding. He didn't acknowledge Anthony at all, for which he was honestly grateful, and instead spoke solely to Anastasia. "I'm sorry for your struggles, but what's important is that you're here now. I see you already found a drink?"
"Yes, thank you. While I regret being here late, I can see what a wonderful ball you have here. I hope I can find someone willing to dance with me."
"There will be plenty of men lining up for a dance with you, Anastasia dear. If I wasn't so busy hosting, I would dance with you myself."
Lady Tanbury shot him a sharp look, one he missed entirely. Like with many men, Lord Tanbury only saw Anastasia. His sister often complained that it was frustrating, that being stared at with hungry expressions was tiring and tedious, Anthony knew the feeling, although for different reasons.
Anastasia smiled, although it looked awkward on her lips. "Again, it is lovely to see you Lord Tanbury, Lady Tanbury. I think my brother and I will let you get back to enjoying yourselves." She turned away, smoothing out her skirt, and let out a dull sigh. "I hate the way he looks at me. He has a wife, for goodness sake."
Anthony's heart twanged in sympathy. "At least he likes you. The invitation was formally addressed to me, yet he won't even bother to say hello."
Anastasia patted his shoulder with a sigh. "I'm afraid things will never change, but we can at least enjoy ourselves despite it. First of all, I would like another drink. Then I believe we should dance."
"That would require finding a willing dance partner," Anthony replied, "and while you will have no issues, I won't be so lucky."
A couple walked past, arm in arm, their laughter filtering through the beautiful music. The woman was young, perhaps nineteen, and she wore a shimmery blue dress with a wide, square neckline. Her smile faltered as she laid eyes on Anthony. She wasn't even subtle as she leaned up close to her partner and whispered, "It's the Duke of Harridan. He's even more hideous than I expected."
"Hush now," the man chastised, "you've heard the rumors. He murdered his own father so he could become Duke. We should be careful of what we say." They both shot him nervous looks over their shoulders, before quickly darting their eyes away.
"At least have the decency to be more subtle," he grumbled, but there was no fire in his voice. Already he was growing tired of the whole thing.
They must have heard him, because the woman bolted straight, body tensing. When she risked peeking back at Anthony, her cheeks were crimson with embarrassment. When she saw him looking, she turned away and tugged on the man's shoulder. Although Anthony couldn't hear what they said, it was clear that they hadn't expected to be overheard. Moments later, the two darted off into the crowd.
"I'm going for fresh air," he mumbled. The ballroom was stuffy and airless, only aggravating his bad mood, but perhaps a burst of cold air might improve it somewhat.
Anastasia might have argued, but when she saw his expression, she softened. "All right. Be quick though, all right? You have to at least try and show your presence."
"I will," he promised with a smile. Smiling always tugged awkwardly at his disfigured lip, a tight and uncomfortable feeling, so such expressions were usually reserved only for loved ones. Scowling so often probably didn't help his reputation, but it was simply how his face naturally wanted to rest. Letting his features relax, he added, "I wouldn't want to tarnish the family reputation more than I already have."
"Anthony," Anastasia scolded, "those rumors are nonsense, you know that. You cannot help what people think of you, but you can rise above it."
Right. Rise above it. An impossible task really, when people thought so lowly of him. What happened to Father wasn't his fault, at least not entirely, but once the rumors spread, it was impossible to avoid the harsh whispers and cruel words. People didn't care whether they were right or wrong, they simply wanted new gossip to discuss. Frowning, Anthony said, "Are you trying to say that I care too much about what people think?"
"Perhaps," Anastasia replied with a shrug of narrow shoulders, "but I know you won't listen."
Rolling his eyes, Anthony bid her a temporary farewell and strode toward the ballroom doors. The foyer was empty, the sounds of music and chatter becoming more and more distant the farther he walked. His footsteps echoed eerily on the wooden floor, like a second pair of feet lingering just out of view.
When Anthony stepped into the lush gardens of Tanbury Manor, a rush of cold air hit him. It was dark now, so dark it was difficult to see, and the only light was provided by the enormous ballroom windows. It cast across the grass in a focused, golden beam, disappearing into the darkness. Out here, the music was muted by thick walls and glass. He could only make out the elegant violin strings and the faintest suggestion of a flute.
It instantly helped him to relax, and Anthony found his heartbeat returning to a normal pace. Out here, alone, he could almost be himself again.
Anthony wandered aimlessly through the enormous estate, without any real idea in mind of where he might end up. Everything looked so different at night, the shadows twisting to create new, mystical shapes that didn't exist during the day. The hedges seemed larger, towering above him in a great, shapeless mass.
Eventually he found himself by a little rose garden, the lattices delicately intertwined with climbing red roses. There were two benches nestled in the privacy the flowers offered. Compared to the rest of the estate it was rather quant, hardly as grand as the showy ballroom or great topiary hedges near the front of the manor. It was beautiful, even in the darkness, and had a lovely, delicate smell.
It was as good a place as any to sit down, Anthony decided, and settled onto the edge of the wooden bench. It was cold, but the breeze had helped to clear his mind, so perhaps it wasn't all bad. He hoped Anastasia was enjoying herself inside, dancing with handsome men and conversing with her many friends.
For him, the solitude of the garden was much more favorable, and Anthony found himself wishing he didn't have to return inside.
The first man to ask Eloise to dance was a tall, redheaded man with freckles splashed across his fair skin. He was handsome, she supposed, in a unique kind of way. He kindly offered his hand to her, and when they touched, his skin was clammy from nerves. "Eloise Mumford," he stammered, "would you do me the honor of a dance?"
She didn't want to agree, but he was just so sweet and eager that she couldn't say no. Reluctantly she accepted his outstretched hand, casting a helpless look back toward Margaret. She simply shrugged in reply, indicating that Eloise was alone in this. Forcing a smile onto her full lips, she turned back to the man now leading her toward where the dancing was thickest. "And who do I have the pleasure of dancing with?"
His pale cheeks flushed red, a nervous smile curving at his lips. "Edward Honeyfield, miss. You don’t remember me?"
Honeyfield. Ah, she should have known. Truthfully, Eloise hadn’t recognized him at all, but now that she saw his nervous smile, she remembered. The Honeyfields were close friends with her mother, namely Lord Edgar Honeyfield and his wife, Lady Henriette. They all had bright orange hair just like his, flat and straight without a single curl. They had met briefly, when Mother hosted an afternoon tea party a year or so ago.
"Well Edward, it's a pleasure." As much as Eloise didn't want to be rude, she had to force the words from her lips. His hands were clammy with sweat, his grip too tight and he stumbled over his own feet as if he had never walked on them before. Truthfully, she was eager for this to be over.
At least the music was slow, mostly violin, it was elegant and peaceful to suit the late evening. The peppier songs were behind them now, which hopefully meant the ball was ending soon. Edgar put a hand on her waist, although he barely touched her as if such a chaste move was somehow wrong.
"Like this," Eloise instructed, placing his hand a little higher, and a little firmer, around her. His other hand stayed firmly wrapped around hers, tightly enough her fingers were beginning to hurt, but she didn't want to embarrass the poor boy. Instead she began to gently sway to the music, hoping he would take the lead.
Instead, Edward followed her example. It was clear he wanted to impress her but had no idea how to dance. Given Eloise's own strict upbringing, which had her learning how to dance by the time she could walk, it struck her as odd. Edward had two left feet, as it were, stumbling and murmuring apologies the entire time.
"It's all right," Eloise reassured, although truthfully her patience was wearing thin. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Margaret and Charles deep in conversation. Charles seemed pleased that she was finally dancing with a gentleman, his smile small but genuine. Frowning, Eloise turned back to Edward.
"Is something the matter?" he questioned, just in time to stamp down on Eloise's foot. She yelped in pain, and he flushed a dark pink and darted away. "I am so sorry."
People were looking now. Before, during the altercation with the twins, Eloise had been too angry to care about the attention she brought. Now embarrassment swelled in her chest and she had to fight the urge to flee. Instead she fought down the uneasiness forming in her chest and forced a smile. "Edward, do you know how to dance?"
"Only a little," he admitted quietly, "I never could grasp it properly."
Well that explained a lot. She shot the onlookers a warning glance, which sent most of them scrambling to pretend as if they hadn't been openly gawking just seconds before. With a huff of impatience, she took Edward's hands again. She showed him the steps, as simple as they were, one foot out then the other, in a basic circle.
Yet even as she danced with a man so clearly eager, her mind drifted to somebody else, that mysterious man in the red waistcoat. Who was he? She had heard the rumors circling that the beastly Duke of Harridan was attending this ball. The man was known for turning up late to social events or simply not appearing at all. Could it have been..? No, it was likely a coincidence.
Yet a small part of her was intrigued. She allowed Edward to spin her, skirt billowing, but the steps came second nature. Eloise didn't have to think as she was spun about the dance floor. This close the music was too loud for conversation too, which allowed her mind to focus solely on the mysterious man.
Until her foot connected with something hard and she went tumbling. The force of the collision forced her legs from beneath her, wrenching her hands from Edward's and then she was falling, the breath catching in her lungs. Eloise landed with a thud loud enough to shatter through the music, and pain laced its way along her leg. Looking down, Eloise saw that her shoe had come free, stocking covered foot on full display.
Jane's tilting laughter reached Eloise's ears, grating on the last of her nerves. Standing to Eloise's left, Jane and Isabel stood arm in arm, wearing matching expressions of glee. "Oh dear," Jane giggled, "how clumsy of you!"
"You really aren't fit for these events, dear Eloise," Isabel added. They shared a grin, stifling more of that horrible laughter.
Women stopped to stare. Men openly laughed. Not one person, servant or guest, offered assistance. They simply watched with poorly hidden amusement as Eloise hauled herself upright, her cheeks stained red. The people nearest to her, some who had been dancing right along with her, stepped back with looks of bemused disgust as Eloise stood.
"Jane. Isabel. You two are terrible, selfish people, and I hope you someday come to regret it." Snatching her shoe from where it lay discarded on the ground, Eloise jammed it back onto her foot. The things hurt to wear, and her feet ached from standing for so long but it was better than staying barefoot, marginally.
Before she could storm off however, Jane closed the distance between them. It was bold of her, to speak so openly when people were watching, but Jane had never been good at tact. Only once her lips were inches from Eloise's ear did she whisper, "No need to get so defensive. We're just having fun. And your threats don't frighten us." Then she leaned away, a bright smile on her face as if nothing was wrong in the world.
"Try not to be so clumsy next time, Eloise. You'll never get a husband if you keep this up." Isabel flashed a grin. Then she grabbed Jane by the arm, and the two of them strolled off toward a servant serving more wine.
Brushing down her dress, Eloise knew it was no use. People had been dancing on this floor all evening, and the dirt was well worn in. There was a smudge about knee height, right in plain view, and she only hoped it would wash out.
"I'm sorry," Edward mumbled. By now the interest was over, the dance continuing and he obviously felt brave enough to address her now. "I didn't mean to make you fall, truly-"
"It wasn't you," Eloise reassured. Still attempting to fix her dress, she brushed a hand over the dust stain, but it was no use. At least it gave her an excuse not to look at Edward, or anybody else, for that matter. Wincing, she let out a soft sigh. "It was those two, Isabel and Jane. They simply love making life difficult for my friends and I."
"Why is that?"
This wasn't something she wanted to discuss, least of all with a man she hardly knew. Taking a deep breath, she tried not to snap as she said, "I need fresh air. I can't be inside this place a second longer."
Edward let her go, stepping away as if he'd been burned. Perhaps it was her sour expression, green eyes dark, or perhaps he had simply realized she was not worth the effort.
The thought was cruel, so Eloise cast it from her mind as she turned to go. A few gazes lingered hot on her back as she walked, but nobody said a word, at least not that she heard. In quick time, Eloise made it to the foyer, the noise drifting into the background of her mind.
Mother would have thrown a fit if she saw Eloise leaving the manor but as nobody stopped her, she had to assume Mother didn't know. It was a small relief, enough for her to relax slightly as she embraced the cool evening. It was almost too cold, with a breeze rustling her hand and dress. It turned her cheeks pink, her breath billowing out in front of her but it was lost to the darkness.
She passed by a window, the light streaming through onto the stone path. From an outside perspective the ball looked beautiful. Women in expensive dresses danced with men in stunning tail coats. Servants wandered between the guests, offering drinks and platters of delicate entrees. The music continued to play, although now it was muffled by the layers of glass between them. It really was lovely, and it wasn't until now that Eloise really appreciated it.
She still didn't want to be in there though, not with Jane and Isabel creating havoc or mother picking out marriageable men for her to dance with, not with Charles, who had been on Mother's side this entire time, or the half a dozen bachelors desperate for her attention.
If one good thing came of Jane's ploy to embarrass her, it was that any men watching might have changed their minds about how desperately they wanted to meet her. That certainly would have put a hitch in Mother's plan, which almost made it worthwhile.
Charles passed by the window, his expression furrowed into a deep frown. Eloise ducked out of sight just as his gaze swept past the window, and he continued on none the wiser. Was he looking for her? By now, word of her embarrassment must have reached him, and she wondered how the carriage ride home was going to go. Awkwardly, she imagined, although no more awkward than the dozen other conversations of the same kind.
Eloise, you have to be more ladylike and, you will never find a husband if you keep making things difficult for yourself. Or even, it doesn't matter if those girls tripped you, it's your responsibility to handle it with grace. Anytime something went wrong, whether it was Eloise's fault or not, she was blamed for it. It was almost as if her family had come to expect her to do something wrong, and were constantly waiting for it to happen.
The only ones who understood were the twins, Clair and Sophie. They knew what it was like to be forced into things they didn't want. Unfortunately, they were both too afraid of punishment to ever voice their thoughts and went along with everything Mother said. When they did decide to go against her wishes, it was usually when Mother was too preoccupied with Eloise to notice. Like tonight, pretending to be ill, because they knew Mother was too busy trying to find viable men for Eloise.
Letting out a sigh, Eloise turned to wander down the path. It was dark and more than once she caught her foot on an uneven slab of brick, but just being out here, where it was cool and peaceful, made it worth the ache in her feet. Oh, she couldn't wait to go home and take off these shoes.
There was a rose garden nearby, only visible from the way the light from the ballroom shimmered off of the white painted lattice walls. It was pretty, if much more modest than expected from the Tanburys, with gorgeous red roses climbing along every spare inch of wall. Three lattices made up the little nook, a private space where anybody could sit and remain unseen.
Being unseen was exactly what Eloise wanted in this moment. Nobody would think to look for her here, or at least she hoped so. She wandered over, careful to stay on the path and avoid crushing the little rose bushes lining the side. Eloise brushed a hand across the lattice. It was cool to the touch, the flowers delicate, every single one of them had their thorns removed.
"A shame," she mumbled, "roses are so pretty with their thorns." More than once she had pricked her finger on a rose at home. Sophie grew them, and she always insisted that roses in their natural form were the prettiest. Eloise agreed. Still they were lovely; and best of all, it provided a safe space for her to hide. At least until Jane and Isabel had the time to lose interest in her.
Funny. As if that would ever happen.
Creeping inside, Eloise used her hands to guide her. It wasn't pitch black, but the light from the manor didn't reach this far out, blocked by the flowers and elegantly curved lattices. Eventually she found a wooden bench with curved arms, and she sat down with a sigh of relief. Finally, she had a chance to rest her feet.
Now that there was nobody to watch her, Eloise took the chance to stretch out. Her back popped as she lifted her arms above her head before she let her hands drop back down into her lap.
It wasn't until she turned, eyes tilted up to watch the sky, that Eloise felt another presence. It was difficult to see, but she noticed the faint orange flicker of a cigarette being lit. A second later, she smelled the ashy smoke. Although it was impossible to make out their features, Eloise made out the silhouette of a broad shouldered man.
"Apologies, I didn't realize anybody else was here." She bit down on her lip, instinctively straightening. Despite what she thought, Mother's etiquette training did have some effect. "Are you out here to get some air too?"
The man shrugged, big shoulders heaving. "I am not entirely welcome at these events, but my sister insists that I go. It was as disappointing as I expected."
"I'm afraid I know exactly how you feel," Eloise replied simply. She felt a spark of sympathy for the man, who clearly wasn't enjoying himself. Why else would he be out here in the cold, instead of indoors where the fun was? She squinted, trying to get a better look at him, but all she managed was a glimpse of long hair. With a jolt, she realized that it was the man Margaret had pointed out before. If only there was more light, so she could know if he was as handsome as she imagined.
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