Lady Jane Pennington was feeling rather hunted. The ballroom was beginning to seem like a forest with impoverished bachelors waiting in the blinds, and she was the doe.
Jane propped herself up against the wall, half-hidden by a potted palm. She didn’t think her toes could bear any more dancing.
Instead, she spent several minutes seeking out her five female cousins, the girls commonly known in Society as the Maywell Mob. Lord Maywell was the host of this evening’s perspiration works—er, ball—and he was also Jane’s uncle.
The gentleman was nowhere in sight, of course, being far more interested in cards than he was in trying to further the acquaintance and marriage possibilities of his five daughters. Jane allowed herself to fume without betraying it in her expression.
Supplying escort and introductions for his daughters was the least the man could do, especially after saddling the poor things with the Maywell nose, not to mention the Maywell propensity to overindulge.
With only her overworked aunt, Lady Maywell, chaperoning all five daughters, the girls had been known to get themselves into some very silly situations.
She spotted her youngest cousin, Serena, shyly watching the dancers. At fifteen, Serena was far too young to be out, but that decision was not up to Jane. Lord and Lady Maywell had thrown their daughters wholesale at the Marriage Mart, evidently hoping that one would stick.
Abandoning the safety of her palm for a moment, Jane made her way to Serena and surreptitiously adjusted the girl’s sash and tucked a wayward strand of strawberry-blonde hair, much like her own, back into its arrangement.
“You’ve a stain on your bodice, dear,” she whispered to Serena. “Re-pin your silk flower over it.”
Serena gulped and nodded, then turned to run for the ladies’ retiring room. Looking across the room, Jane noticed that Augusta, the eldest of the five, who was still not quite twenty, had found a glass of champagne somewhere. Lady Maywell was nowhere in sight so Jane moved swiftly.
A young man stepped into her path. “Lady Jane! May I beg this dance?”
Jane blinked at him. What the blazes was the little rotter’s name again? She’d been introduced to every male under fifty since coming to London three months ago and could scarcely recall a single individual.
They all remembered her, more’s the pity. Lady Jane Pennington, richly gowned and unwed and therefore a catch for any enterprising fellow who thought himself poorer than he should be. The attention had at first been bewildering, had briefly been flattering, but then had dissolved into annoying when she realized that there was only one reason for the adoration.
Her irritation must have leaked into her expression, for the young man actually took a step back. “My lady?”
Billingsly. The name popped into Jane’s head from nowhere in particular. “Mr. Billingsly—please forgive me.” She forced herself to be polite. After all, it wasn’t Mr. Billingsly’s fault that he was one of the most boring fellows it had ever been her pleasure to have her slippers trod by. “I’m sorry, but I’ve just found that my aunt requires my presence.”
That was true enough, if one considered that if Aunt Lottie knew of Augusta’s actions, she would certainly wish Jane to act on her behalf. “But I see that my cousin Julia is available for this dance.”
Disappointment chased the fellow’s smile away. Rallying, he bowed. “Of course. The pleasure will be all—”
Oh, horse apples. Augusta had drained the flute dry. Jane brushed past Mr. Billingsly with an absent nod. “You will excuse me, I’m sure.”
By the time Jane had maneuvered her way around the dancers, Augusta, who as far as Jane knew had never imbibed a drop of wine in her life, was already blinking dazedly at the shimmering chandelier above her head.
“Look, Jane,” she said when Jane approached her. “It makes little rainbows on the ceiling!” She hiccupped, then giggled. “Isn’t champagne divine?”
Oh, glory. Jane pulled her cousin away from her amazement and down the length of the ballroom. “It is time for you to get some air, dear. It’s far too warm in here.”
Augusta blinked and came willingly enough. “I am a bit dizzy.”
“Have you eaten anything today?”
Augusta shook her head virtuously. “Oh, no. I wanted to get into this gown. Don’t I look fine?”
Jane sighed. This was going to get worse before it got better. “You look lovely, dear heart. Now here we go. Out through these doors . . .”
A few moments later, the champagne was in the bushes and Augusta was on her way to her bedchamber with a maid, suddenly more than willing to bring her evening to an end. Disaster averted.
Jane remained outside on the terrace, breathing in the cool evening air. She herself wasn’t willing to reenter the stuffy ballroom either. She was only willing to go so far to satisfy Mother.
“Follow your uncle and aunt carefully. You’ve little experience at these things.”
Of course, that was then. Now she had three months of experience behind her and all she could say for it was, this was the most bored she’d ever been in her life. Her days were filled with girlish giggles and her evenings were filled with sore toes and false fawning.
She recorded every bit of it dutifully in her daily letters to Mother, although she couldn’t imagine why Mother would be interested.
Taking advantage of being completely unobserved for a moment, Jane indulged in a languorous stretch. Rubbing the back of her neck while rolling her head from side to side, she wondered if she’d fulfilled her obligation to attract young men for her cousins’ benefit for the evening. She was tired, and someone ought to look in on Augusta . . .
A wayward glimmer caught her eye. She looked up at the house before her, shading her eyes from the glare through the ballroom windows. There it was again.
High in a third-floor window—the second from the left—she saw another gleam of candlelight. There was something furtive about that candle. Wasn’t that the room her uncle had closed off, declaring the chimney structurally dangerous?
It certainly looked solid from here, but then, Lord and Lady Maywell were still able to maintain the appearance of prosperity. The house seemed elegant and richly appointed, although Jane knew for a fact that it was a decaying pile.
So if that room was dangerous—what was someone doing in there with that furtive candle?
Jane backed up a few steps, trying to see into the window. The terrace ended in a balustrade that ran to curving stone stairs to the left and right. Jane lifted her skirts with one hand and ran lightly down the stairs and out onto the lawn, never taking her eyes off that window.
The angle was still too severe. What a pity. For a moment, she’d thought she actually had something interesting to tell Mother.
She cast a look behind her. At the edge of the lawn, just outside the circle of light cast by the ballroom windows and terrace lanterns, stood a grand old elm.
Jane liked that tree, for it was the only thing in her relations’ tightly maintained garden that reminded her of the old wild groves in Northumbria.
Once upon a time, she had been an accomplished climber of trees. She cast one last thoughtful glance at the window. Was the candle gone?
A flicker of light from the upper window encouraged her. The sturdy-looking branches of the elm virtually dared her.
Jane smiled to herself and crossed the lawn to the tree.
The ballroom was crowded with predators intent on sensual fulfillment, virgins intent on a triumphant match, and chaperones determined to keep them apart—usually an interesting mix, certain to provide an evening’s worth of cynical amusement.
At the moment, however, Ethan Damont—gambler, rampant bachelor, and gainfully unemployed counterfeit gentleman—only wanted to find the back door.
Over the years, Ethan had learned that it was always best to leave by the less obvious exit after a lucrative night, in case someone belatedly decided that a certain professional gambler had been . . . well . . . “cheating” was really the only word for it.
It wouldn’t do to have his sleeves and pockets searched at the moment. Ethan was very proud of his unbroken record of evident honesty and he wasn’t about to tempt fate now by sailing out the front door in full sight.
A crimson glove caught his arm, forcing him to pause. A dark-eyed lady with a memorable bosom smiled up at him.
“Why, what a pleasure it is to see you again, Mr. Damont.” The last was said in a bedroom purr. For a moment, Ethan fondly recalled other names she’d called him in that very tone.
Of course, the lady’s husband hadn’t been very happy to hear cries of “Faster, my stallion!” coming from his wife’s bedroom during that best-not-remembered house party.
But it was time for him to leave. With a last wistful look at the aforesaid bosom, Ethan bowed and smiled regretfully. “I must beg your leave, madam. Urgent business, you know.”
He hadn’t taken more than ten strides when another gloved hand caught him short. This one was clad in emerald silk that perfectly matched the stones around the neck of a statuesque blonde.
“Darling, I didn’t know you were here!” She inhaled deeply. Miraculous things happened within the structured bodice of her jet-black gown.
Ah, the Widow Bloomsbury . . .
The nights—and mornings, and afternoons—he had spent in the widow’s bed shone with a fiery glow in Ethan’s memory. So very limber!
Ethan kissed the back of that gloved hand. “Another time, another place, pet,” he murmured. “I must be off.”
He turned away to see a vaguely familiar lady in sapphire blue moving toward him with an intent gleam in her eye. Bloody hell, perhaps this ball didn’t contain any virgins after all! He dashed around the dancers to avoid her.
This time he kept his head up and his eyes peeled. He managed to detour around the next several ladies heading in his direction and make the door to the terrace without having to stop again.
Breathless and feeling rather like the fox before the hounds, Ethan cast one last desperate look behind him, then slipped outside into the dark garden.
Evidently what Lady Jane Pennington’s mother had often told her was true. One never knew when one would be glad one wore a fresh pair of knickers. Thank goodness she’d donned a brand-new pair this evening. When one was hanging upside down from a tree, the condition of one’s knickers and garters became of vital importance.
Jane stopped trying to fight back the skirts that hung over her face and arms and hung quietly by her knees from the tree branch, swinging only slightly in a pensive manner.
The ground—too far down to simply let go and fall. The branch—impossible to grasp when her upper body was sheathed in her own inverted skirts. “ ‘The new silhouette is very narrow, miss’,” Jane quoted the absent dressmaker viciously to herself. “ ‘Small steps are all the rage, miss. Elegance first, miss’.”
Right then, time for another try. Carefully bunching the fabric in her hands as she went, she worked the hems of her petticoat and gown up to her elbows, then higher, this time successfully freeing her face and shoulders. Taking a deep breath of cool night air, she shot a leery glance at the ground just a bit too far below her.
The worst of it was that it was all for nothing. The glimmer in the window was long gone now and she hadn’t seen anything worthwhile.
Taking a deep breath, she swung her body back and forth, reaching upward at the top of each arc to grasp for her limb with both hands. Her fingers slipped on the crumbling bark the first and second times. She swung upward once more.
The branch let out a threatening cracking sound at her burst of activity. Jane froze. Her moment of inattention allowed the layers of muslin to cover her once more.
The thick limb had seemed sturdy enough when she’d clambered up onto it. If her formal dancing slippers had not been so slick and useless that she’d been unable to keep her footing, she would have been fine.
She was still fine at the moment, since her legs were strong from country living and her head wasn’t pounding too severely yet, but if she didn’t find a solution to her problem soon, she was going to have to face a fate that currently ranked somewhat worse than death.
She was going to have to call for help.
Ethan Damont left Lord Maywell’s lovely ballroom with his pockets full of Lord Maywell’s lovely money. Since he’d been assured by reliable sources that Lord Maywell was a very bad sort of man, Ethan had even enjoyed the evening’s card game.
The refreshing thrill from a pastime that had mostly left him cold for the last year put an additional spring to his step as he crossed Maywell’s expansive grounds.
Sauntering down the gravel walk leading to a rear wall that hopefully wouldn’t be too high to manage, Ethan heard a sound that made him freeze in place.
Somewhere, not a dozen yards away, a woman was cursing softly and creatively.
A woman? Out in the dark alone? Ethan’s lips twitched. Who said she was alone?
He began moving again. Far be it from him to interfere in someone else’s mischief. He certainly wouldn’t want to be disturbed at such a moment. At least, not as he recalled such moments, dimly though that was.
Female companionship was something else that had lost its previous glow this past year—at least as far as the sort of women Ethan had once fancied.
There had been a time he’d liked his entertainment enthusiastically shameless, the more so the better. Wine, women, and song. When money ran thick like honey through his fingers, he’d had no trouble finding playmates aplenty. And when times were lean, his charm had been enough for at least an occasional tumble.
Then one day the wine turned to vinegar, the women became loud and blowsy, and the song began a discordant resonance deep within him. It suddenly felt as though he could see far, far into his future—and all it held was more of the same.
He’d kept up the pretense for a while, but then lost interest even in that. It wasn’t until he’d been dragged from his house a few weeks ago by a dark-haired beauty on a mission that he had felt his own heart beating in excitement once again.
Of course, who could blame him? She was a fine and revitalizing creature, was Rose Lacey—that is, Rose Tremayne, for she was now married to quite possibly the last friend Ethan had left in the world.
Which was probably for the best. Ethan had little to recommend himself to a woman so principled. Ethan could honestly claim that his own life was devoted to the redistribution of wealth—into his own pockets.
He wondered without much interest if it was going to be a very long life.
Then he heard it. Sniffle.
“Oh, no,” he groaned to himself. “Not that.” His spine weakened. He tried to stiffen it by sheer will.
“Bloody hell,” he whispered, slumping in resignation. Turning around, he retraced his silent steps until he was opposite where he believed the woman to be. The hedge was old growth and sparse between the thick gnarled trunks. Ethan wriggled through with commendable lack of noise.
The grounds here were dark, but Ethan could see the black trunks of trees silhouetted against the better lit area nearer the house. The earth was soft under his feet, so he was able to approach the ladylike sniffling unheard.
Finally, Ethan was treated to such a sight that he simply had to pause. With a deep breath, he took a moment to appreciate it fully. Long, bestockinged, truly superior legs were wrapped firmly around a jutting tree branch. It was damned erotic, that’s what it was. Ethan felt like letting go a bestial growl of his own.
He stepped closer. In the light from the house he could see the milky gleam of thigh skin peeking over the tops of the pair of rather battered stockings. The calves that were crooked over the limb looked plump and fully strong enough to hang on to him—er, the tree branch—all night long.
There was nothing else to see but yards of muslin swathing the rest of her. No difficulty there.
Ethan had ever been a leg man.
Just then, the branch Ethan had been envying gave out a loud, groaning crack!
Ethan lunged forward, grasped the muslin bundle by what he judged to be a waist and tugged the whole lot, legs and all, into his arms. His damsel in distress let out a yelp of surprise and sent an elbow deep into his stomach.
“Oof!” That had hurt! Just for that, Ethan put her down far more slowly than he otherwise would have. After all, one didn’t happen onto this sort of view every day. With his arms wrapped around her, the act of turning her over caused a few “unavoidable” liberties to be taken.
“So sorry. Do forgive me,” Ethan said without much urgency. He let the luscious legs down first and watched wistfully as the muslin shifted allegiance and tumbled down to hide them. He was left with a struggling, protesting bundle of fallen hair and slapping hands.
“Get—off! Oh! Oh!” The woman gave him a last hearty shove and Ethan released her.
“You’re welcome,” he drawled, and dipped a low ironic bow, then turned to walk away. Heroism never paid. “I do hope the branch doesn’t fall on your head,” he called to her, his tone not terribly concerned.
Red-faced and gasping, Lady Jane Pennington, well-known Society heiress and recent rescuee, straightened and brushed her hair partially out of her eyes. The light of the house was behind her, shining on a broad back that was swiftly disappearing into the darkness.
Oh, thank heaven he was leaving! If one could catch fire from embarrassment and humiliation, she would certainly be a living torch right now. The fact that someone had seen—oh, she could die!