Henry Crawford paced the edges of the ballroom, surveying the latest crop of debutantes with a critical, assessing eye. Not just any beauty would do for him this season. The lady he selected to pursue would need more than beauty to capture his admiration. He had had his fill of games, dalliances, and chits who thought too well of themselves. He was looking for a woman of substance who would stand by his side as his wife. Not that he truly felt worthy of such a lady.
His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized a group of ladies standing in a corner to the right of the ballroom door. There were several in the group who stood head and shoulders above the rest. They would never do for him. He did not possess great height, and a gentleman must not have a partner ─ even for a dance ─ who was taller than he.
Of the ladies of acceptable height, there were those who held their chins very much like a particular young lady whom he would like to forget. She was full of airs and invitation, but… He shook his head. Maria Bertram had been more beauty than substance, and what substance she had possessed was, as it turned out, unpleasant. He shuddered in remembrance of that particular lady’s sour disposition.
Then there were one or two in the group who were of a proper stature and appeared shy ─ almost fearful. They were the ones whispering to their chaperones and fidgeting uneasily. They would likely be the ones still standing by the wall when the dancing began ─ not because they lacked beauty, for they did not. Some were slightly more attractive than others as was the normal scheme of things, but all were elegantly dressed and expertly coiffured, showing themselves to best advantage. However, their reserved manner and lack of sparkle would likely see them overlooked. That might be the best place to begin, with the wallflowers, if he could bring himself to approach anyone at all.
He paused at the door to the terrace, which was not quite closed, and pulled in a gulp of cool air. The room seemed rather warmer than he remembered it being. Perhaps it was the crush of people, or ─ he swallowed at the strange uneasiness that rose in his throat ─ perhaps it was the disapproving eyes of the many matrons and male folk guarding their precious treasures that made him wish to pull at his cravat and straighten his jacket and caused him to feel so warm. That was likely it, he had to admit to himself. He had always been welcomed in the past, but tonight he did not feel that former welcome. It was his own doing, however, and he knew it. Had he considered one sweet lady as the precious treasure she was, he would likely not be here scouting for someone with fair eyes and a pleasant smile to fill the void that Fanny Price had left in his heart.
“Have you settled on the next scandal?” Charles Edwards drew up beside Henry and lifting his quizzing glass, looked down his nose as he surveyed the room. “It is an excellent crop with many beauties.”
“Aye, it is that,” Henry agreed with a half smile.
“Which shall it be?” Edwards cast a quick glance at his friend of many years.
“I do not know. I see their beauty, but…” He turned toward Edwards so that his lips could not be read by anyone.
“I do not think I am ready for this,” he admitted in a low whisper. “I should not have allowed you and Linton to talk me into attending.”
“Do not be foolish, my man, you are exactly where you must be to assuage a disappointment.” Edwards’ smile had a wolfish quality to it as it usually did when he was speaking of ladies. “A broken heart does a lady good. It hurries her on to consider matrimony at a faster pace. In reality, their guardians should be thankful for those of us who provide such a service.”
Henry chuckled. If there was one thing at which Edwards was good, besides seducing a lady, it was twisting logic into some rational explanation about why his actions were not so reprehensible as most might consider them. The truth was that Edwards was a rogue through and through, but he had enough charm and good looks to make him not only acceptable to many young ladies but also desirable. Likely one of them fancied herself as capable of ensnaring the man’s heart and reforming him into all that was proper. Henry wished her well, for the task would not be an easy one.
“The Price chit you liked. She’s married now, is she not?” Edwards pressed his point.
For a moment, Henry paused to consider that Edwards might be correct. After Henry’s departure last spring, Fanny had not been long in securing an offer from her cousin Edmund. He shook his head. No, his friend was not correct, for Fanny’s heart had not been broken, and that was a truth which, as of yet, never ceased to cause his own heart to pinch. She had been kind to him and caring, and perhaps she might have been persuaded to love him, but she had not loved him as he had wished she would.
He knew his foolishness had hurt her, and he imagined her disappointment in him had been great. How could it not have been? Fanny was all that was good. She scowled ─ very prettily and softly ─ at all that was less than virtuous. How she must have censured him in her heart, if not in her words! And he deserved it. He knew he did. He had failed her. He had acted rashly, in a fit of misguided passion. He was likely very unfit for any lady of such good taste and character.
Henry’s morose contemplations were brought to a halt as a burly gentleman wearing a green jacket attempted to pass between Henry and the doors behind him. “You must dance at least once before you escape.” Trefor Linton gave Henry a nudge with his shoulder. “When the horse tosses you on your arse, you have to ride it again.”
Henry flashed a grin at his friend. “You are not also going to tell me how breaking the hearts of poor innocents is somehow a service to them, are you?”
“Good heavens, I should say not!” cried Linton. “Has Edwards been spouting his regular rubbish?”
“I will have you know it is not rubbish,” Edwards defended. “Why just last year, three young ladies made very eligible matches after I had shown them particular attention. I tell you, I am a good luck charm for the matrimonially-minded miss.”
“I dare say at least one of them felt a very pressing need to accept the first offer she was given after receiving your attentions.” Linton raised his left brow and looked down his nose imperiously at Edwards.
Edwards shrugged. “I heard no word of scandal.”
“That is because you refuse to listen,” Linton muttered.
Henry shook his head. How Linton had remained friends with Edwards and him for all these years was a mystery. Linton was level-headed and honorable to a fault. He would never be caught in a dark corner with a chit. Edwards, on the other hand, made it something of a sport to see how many dark corners he could frequent with a different chit in each one. And Henry? Well, he was more inclined to participate with Edwards and tease Linton for his refusal to join them than he was to deny himself such pleasure. He drew a breath. No longer. He hoped.
“So who shall it be?” Edwards prodded again. “Her?” He directed his gaze at a curvaceous blonde to their left. “She would be quite delightful, I imagine.”
Linton’s long arm reached behind Henry and thwacked Edwards. “Have a care. That’s Hodson’s sister.”
“Indeed?” Edwards did not remove his eyes from the lady. “I had not thought such beauty could be found in his family.” He tipped his head as he studied the beauty across the room. “She has definitely defied the Hodson odds and lost her awkwardness. Does Hodson still frequent Gentleman Jackson’s?”
Linton nodded. “Daily.”
Edwards lowered his glass and gave it a wipe before putting it in his pocket. “Then who else might there be of interest?”
“Start with Constance,” Linton suggested. “No harm will befall you. She will be all that is proper, and perhaps others, seeing that I trust you with her, will stop scowling at us. It is very unnerving. How do you bear such looks of displeasure so frequently, Edwards?”
Edwards laughed. “The pleasure of a few stolen moments is worth the discomfort, my friend. You should try it.”
“Not likely,” Linton retorted.
“You know Crawford is nearly as skilled as I at finding secluded corners.” Edwards once again had his quizzing glass out and was wiping it. “I am surprised you would trust your sister with him.”
“It is one dance in my presence, and he knows I would kill him if he were to so much as think of stealing a kiss from Connie.” Linton crossed his arms and glowered at Edwards. “I believe Crawford currently has enough sense to heed such a warning, and that is why I will allow him to dance with my sister. You, however, still lack such sense and are to keep your distance.”
Edwards shrugged. “Her tongue is too sharp for my liking.” He answered Linton’s growl at the disparagement with a smile. “I prefer not to be lectured when I am attempting to seduce a lady.”
“I should give such ungentlemanly comments the reply they deserve, but knowing they will likely fall on deaf ears, I shall spare my breath. Come, Crawford,” said Linton. “We will leave Edwards to his dissipated ways and go find Connie.”
Constance Linton huffed softly as she stood beside her aunt.
“Stand up straight and do not scowl.” Gwladys Kendrick’s instructions to her niece were accompanied by an appropriately stern look and a slight nudge forward. “No man will ever find you if you attempt to sink into the shadows.”
“I would be quite happy not to be found.” Constance favoured her aunt with a charming smile.
“Do not be ridiculous, child. There must certainly be at least one gentleman here that will rise to your exacting standards of dullness,” a smirk pulled at the corners of Aunt Gwladys’s mouth.
“Dull is not the proper word, Aunt.”
“Yes, I know. Intelligent, forward thinking, and so on.” Aunt Gwladys waved her hand in a small circle, indicating that she knew Constance’s description of her ideal gentleman would go on and on for some time if she was allowed to begin such a topic of conversation. “Many intelligent beasts, such as your brother, dance, you know.”
Constance linked her arm with the lady who had been her companion and guide for these past six years, filling neatly the void left by the death of Constance’s mother. “I know. I just find this whole sifting through the dross process to be quite tedious.”
Aunt Gwladys patted Constance’s hand. “Ah, but the prize for such effort is well worth it.” Her brows furrowed, and her lips pursed for a moment as she caught sight of her nephew. “Why your brother insists on keeping some of his friends, I will never understand.”
“Because one does not turn out a stray just because it has a bad eye ─ or some such thing,” replied Constance with a laugh.
“There is more than an eye that is bad with that one,” Aunt Gwladys muttered as her nephew and Henry Crawford approached.
“He is not so bad as Mr. Edwards,” Constance whispered. “In fact, Mr. Crawford has been making improvements, according to Trefor.”
She was not certain why she felt compelled to defend Henry Crawford. She did not hold him in high esteem herself, but there had been an aura of melancholy about him lately that was so unlike him. She had never been one to enjoy seeing the suffering of others even if they did deserve to feel wretched. Of course, she knew that it would likely not keep her from reprimanding him if the opportunity arose. It was a serious inconsistency in her character, and one she wished to remedy. But, should she continue to reprove and learn to bear the sorrow of the transgressor without qualm, or was it better to bite her tongue and pat the offender’s arm while saying “there, there, poor dear”?
“Mr. Crawford,” Aunt Gwladys gave a nod of her head in greeting while her features spoke of her hesitance in doing so.
“Mrs. Kendrick, Miss Linton.” Henry bowed and smiled. “It is a pleasure to see you. You are both looking fetching tonight ─ quite the brightest jewels at the ball.” He took the hand that Aunt Gwladys had offered him and gave it a kiss.
“Your silver tongue will not work with me, young man. I know your sort.” Her tone was stern despite the small smile that played at her mouth in response to his flattery. “And your lifted brows and raised chin will not scold me into being civil,” she said to Linton while tapping her cheek with her fan, indicating that he should kiss it.
Linton obliged. “Tonight shall be trying enough for Crawford. There is no need of increasing his discomfort,” he said softly.
“Consequences are consequences,” Aunt Gwladys retorted.
“You are correct, of course, but they are not for you to award or laud,” her nephew responded.
Henry pulled at his sleeves and attempted to keep a smile on his lips. How many times had he had to plaster such a look of nonchalance on his face over the last year? “Linton will not allow me to leave until I have danced,” he explained.
“You were leaving just after you arrived?” Constance asked in surprise.
Henry shrugged. “I might have found the card room for a while before making my exit, but yes. I am uncertain I am prepared for the close, and may I say just, examination, I appear to be receiving.”
“Surely, you knew it would be thus?” Constance snapped her mouth shut and smiled sheepishly at her brother, who had cleared his throat rather loudly at her comment.
“I expected as much,” said Henry. “However, I had hoped some of my infamy had faded.”
“There are likely many gentlemen in the card room whose only interest in your past activities is to place a bet on if they are likely to be repeated,” said Aunt Gwladys. “The ladies tend to be longer in coming to terms with the idea of accepting a gentleman back into society who has shown disdain for the solemnity of marriage. They fear you will be unfaithful as a husband, you see. However, you are not without your particular charms.” Her lips curled into a smile. “Pin money and an estate with ample carriages and servants as well as a townhouse and fine gowns are very alluring to some young ladies.”
“Crawford is a changed man, are you not?” Linton turned to Henry. “Henry here has learned the value of a good woman, and that is precisely what he seeks ─ not some fortune hunter.” Linton waved his hand as if brushing away some disgusting bit of dirt.
“I am trying to be,” Henry replied as the musicians began to play something recognizable rather than just the few notes of tuning they had been playing for some minutes.
“I have assured Crawford that you would be happy to partner him for the first dance if Aunt Gwladys has not harpooned someone else for you.”
Constance’s mouth dropped open at the audacity of such a statement. “I can assure you that I would have garnered several names on my card had I wished to do so. I do not need them to be harpooned.”
Henry bit back a smile at the way Linton’s sister crossed her arms and glared at her brother. He had seen them nearly come to blows before over some careless comment that Linton had made and to which Constance had taken exception. It did not matter that she was half the size of her larger and older brother. While others might find the man intimidating, his sister did not. There was no denying the fiery blood of the Kendrick family ran in the lady’s veins. In fact, she seemed to have received all of her own on that account as well as a portion of her more relaxed brother’s.
“She would have secured many a partner, had she not been doing a valiant job of avoiding the majority of them,” muttered her aunt.
“Then, am I in luck?” asked Henry with a bright smile for Constance. “Might I have the pleasure of enduring the stares of the masses with such a lovely partner to hold my attention?”
Though she knew him to be a charmer, Constance had to admit, as she accepted his offer and his arm, that Mr. Crawford’s words were very pretty and did make a lady feel a particular happiness that crept unbidden to her cheeks.