London, May 1860
Stone heard the butler intone his name and title loudly enough for all of London to hear, let alone the population of the Devonses’ ballroom. Had anyone suggested three years ago he would bear the family title, Earl of Stonemere, never mind be contemplating his future nuptials, he would certainly have laughed. True, he never actually laughed anymore, but he certainly would have found such a claim incredulous.
It was no longer an amusing matter.
Having survived the receiving line, he eased through the crowded ballroom. Every few feet, he stopped to speak with one acquaintance or another. Not so long ago, these same people would have been running for the hills and hiding their daughters. But fate, a fickle mistress to say the least, had other plans.
Moving with a quickness born of desperation, he barely acknowledged the next three men as the heat from the crowd paired with the stench of perfumes and body odor to choke him. After his service in India, crowded entertainments such as a ball had grown difficult to endure. The press of bodies and the loud murmur of conversation punctuated by the occasional shrill laugh smothered him, too similar to the roar of battle and the cries of the dying.
Moving past a swarm of silk skirts, he spotted a dark, hidden alcove, an oasis from the overwhelming onslaught, both real and imagined. If he could shut it down quickly enough, he wouldn’t embarrass himself. If he failed, all of London would learn just how broken he was.
He was an earl. Not a soldier. Never again a soldier.
Once the cool darkness enveloped him, he opened his mouth and drew a breath. His pounding pulse eased as the vise around his chest released and his damp skin dried. After another quarter hour spent tucked away, he believed he could manage the crowd long enough to find his betrothed.
As any good officer would, he had a strategy. Find her, claim his dances, and then await each one either on the balcony or on the dance floor, if required. Even the cardrooms at these soirees bordered on disabling.
He reached for the drapes to his hideaway, but hesitated as two women tittered in the immediate vicinity.
“Why, Gladys, I heard his name announced earlier. I’m certain Matilda invited Stonemere despite all the gossip.”
“I simply cannot imagine what she was thinking,” the one called Gladys said.
“Can’t you? Having one of the Lustful Lords in attendance at your ball? I daresay everyone who is anyone will wish to be able to say they were here. It’s all so deliciously scandalous and yet possible now the unmitigated rake is off the market.” Gladys’s friend sighed with a bit more drama than anyone in their right mind or otherwise would deem necessary.
“Well, one should hope that man can contain himself what with all these poor young virgins parading around. It would serve Matilda right if he debauched each and every one of them while here under her auspices.”
“Oh, do be sensible, Gladys. He could perhaps ruin four or five in one night, but all of them?”
Past ready to find his fiancée and escape his hidey-hole, he stepped out next to the ladies in question, turned to them, and bowed over each of their hands. The shock on their faces far outweighed any notion of good manners on his part. “Why, ladies, you both give me far more credit than I deserve. Even in my heyday of debauchery, I could only service three ladies in a single evening.”
As the two ladies sputtered, he departed their corner. The temptation to turn and wink at the gossipers won out, which caused another round of tittering and sputtering from behind him. Of course, he was well aware of what proper Society called himself and his friends. But the Marquess of Flintshire, Earl of Brougham, Baron Lincolnshire, and Viscount Wolfington—as well as himself—held little regard for polite society. Each of them had learned the hard way that they had no place amongst their peers.