Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Blackmoor House, Mayfair
Lady Madeline Hayburn was more than ready for the Season to be over. Ball after ball. Soirees and garden parties after more soirees and even more garden parties. There was no point to it all. Oh, she knew her father was hopeful Maddie would somehow stumble upon her destined husband at one of these inane events. But if it hadn’t happened during her three seasons on the marriage mart, Maddie wasn’t terribly optimistic it would happen tonight.
“Madeline,” whispered her grandmother, the Duchess of Hythe, as she nudged Maddie’s arm. “Do you see Blackmoor over there?”
Maddie glanced across the sea of people littering the ballroom until her eyes fell on the intimidating duke. “Yes, of course,” she whispered back. What on earth did her grandmother care about the Duke of Blackmoor? He and both of his brothers were married and hardly prospects as far as Maddie was concerned.
“The man was a degenerate,” Grandmamma informed her. “One of the worst rogues London has ever seen.”
Just idle gossip then? Maddie smiled at her grandmother. “So I’ve heard.”
“His wife should be commended for bringing him to heel.” Grandmamma gestured toward the pretty duchess who was still greeting her newly arrived guests at the entrance. “Let that be a lesson to you. The right woman can take charge of even the most imposing man.”
Not idle gossip, but another lesson on the management of men. Maddie nearly sighed, but doing so would only earn her another lesson of a different sort. “I can manage Papa,” she said instead.
Her grandmother agreed with a nod of her head. “Of course you can. You’re my granddaughter.”
“And you can manage any other man you set your mind to, as well.”
“Thank you for your confidence.”
Grandmamma continued as though Maddie hadn’t spoken. “I just wish you weren’t so finicky about this whole marriage endeavor, my dear. I would like to actually meet my great-grandchildren, you know.”
Maddie couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her. “In that case, you should probably have this conversation with your grandsons.” Who knew how many great-grandchildren her grandmother might already have?
Grandmamma scowled, but before she could begin a lecture, Lieutenant Hawthorne bowed before them in greeting. “Your Grace, Lady Madeline.”
“Lieutenant.” Maddie smiled with relief. Thank heavens he’d saved her. “I hope you are well this evening.”
“I will be better if I can urge you to stand up with me.”
And whisk her away from her grandmother? Maddie could have kissed him, if only she liked him a little bit. Alas, she didn’t. Besides as the fourth son of a baronet, Lieutenant Hawthorne needed to find a wealthy wife. His interest in Maddie began and ended with her dowry. Still, he was her salvation, if only for a moment. “Thank you, sir. I would be honored.”
He offered her his arm and then led her to the middle of the ballroom where sets were being formed for the minuet. As they circled each other, Maddie couldn’t help but glance across the crowded room and her breath caught slightly in her throat.
Heavens. What was Weston Hadley doing here? Maddie stumbled and would have fallen if Lieutenant Hawthorne hadn’t caught her arm.
“Are you all right?”
Maddie shook her head and tried to regain her composure. “Just clumsy,” she muttered. Though her eyes still fell on Mr. Hadley, as if she just couldn’t help it. The Duchess of Blackmoor’s ball was the last place on earth she would have expected to see a man of his ilk.
Oh, he was born of nobility like everyone else in attendance. And he filled out a coat better than most, even if the coat tended to be a bit on the shabby side. But there was something dark and mysterious about him. And then there was the scar he sported across his cheek.
Lieutenant Hawthorne must have followed her gaze because an expression of amusement settled on his face. “Weston Hadley?”
Maddie straightened her back and stared at her companion as though he was an imbecile. “Hardly.” When they turned the opposite direction, she cocked her head to one side. “Are you well acquainted with Mr. Hadley?”
The lieutenant shrugged. “We’ve met.” He glanced over her shoulder and smirked. “Seems he can’t keep his eyes off you, either.”
And it had been that way ever since she’d met Weston Hadley. She wasn’t quite certain what to make of him. She never had been. And whenever their paths crossed, his gaze followed her. “My dowry has that effect on most men.”
Lieutenant Hawthorne chuckled. “You do know how to wound a man, Lady Madeline.”
She hadn’t meant to insult him. “That wasn’t my intent at all,” she hastened to explain.
“I’m certain it wasn’t,” he agreed good-naturedly. “But I can understand your concern about him. He’s hardly the sort I would imagine has any honorable intentions.”
That was an understatement. He was a Hadley, after all. The most degenerate set of brothers of Maddie’s acquaintance.
“Do you know how Hadley came by that scar of his?”
“No.” But Madeline had wondered about that very thing every time she saw Weston Hadley. “Do you?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “Sadly, no, but there is a bet on the books at White’s about it. I would love to know.”
“Has he never said?” she asked, even though she shouldn’t think about Weston Hadley or his scar. After all, he was one of those penniless Hadley brothers. Even worse, he was a friend of her brothers. That alliance on its own was hardly one to recommend him.
“Never breathed a word about it, as far as I know,” the lieutenant muttered just as the music came to an end. He smiled and then bowed. “Ah, here comes your admirer now.”
Maddie glanced over her shoulder to see Weston Hadley headed straight for her. His dark eyes raked across her form, sending shivers skittering down her spine. Something about his gaze always left her the tiniest bit breathless.
“Lady Madeline,” Mr. Hadley drawled. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Before she could think better of her actions, Maddie offered her hand to the rogue. And when he touched his lips to her gloved knuckles, her knees threatened to buckle beneath her weight. Maddie snatched her hand back and stood her tallest, hoping she appeared more poised than she felt.
“Do have a good evening, sir,” she said before turning on her heel and heading for a small group of ladies at the very edge of the room.
His eyes were still on her; Maddie could feel them. But she refused to turn around, to acknowledge him any further than she had already done. No, everything would be better if she just kept her distance from Weston Hadley with his penetrating dark eyes and his even darker scar.