Clayworth House, Mayfair – October 1815
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The only thing worse than a Peninsular battlefield was a London ballroom, at least to Major Philip Moore’s way of thinking. Though the two locations did have striking similarities with enemy camps and cross purposes. And, of course, Philip had never reveled in being in either place.
“Must you look so sour?” His oldest friend, Captain Russell Avery clapped a hand to Philip’s back. “We are heroes, but you’re still managing to frighten away all the pretty girls.”
Russell could have every pretty girl in London for all Philip cared. As he couldn’t have his girl, the only girl he’d ever loved, Philip didn’t particularly care about any of the others who flitted past him. “I thought you were betrothed to the Greywood chit.”
“She didn’t write me as often as she promised.” His friend shrugged.
Philip snorted. “At least she didn’t marry some blackguard in your absence.”
“True,” Russell conceded. “But I’m not married to her yet, and as she didn’t correspond as much as I’d expected, I think I shall act the role of a scout this evening and try to determine which young lady is the best kisser in attendance.”
“Then won’t you be busy? Or leg-shackled to some other chit you barely know and ruin Miss Greywood’s prospects in the meantime.”
Russell touched a hand to his heart. “You do wound me, Moore. Do you have so little faith in my scouting abilities?”
Philip had seen Russell seduce Flemish beauties, Spanish señoritas, Scottish lasses, and Portuguese meninas. “No. I just think you’re forgetting that we’re home…in England.”
Russell laughed. “Oh, I am quite well aware of the fact, mon ami. But the luster of a hero-returned is bound to dull eventually. Best to make the most of our situation now, while we can.”
Philip wasn’t quite certain when Russell had become so opportunistic. “What am I even doing here with you?”
Again, his friend laughed and gestured across the room to his sister, Cordelia, the Countess of Clayworth. “I believe Cordie browbeat you into attending, did she not?”
Russell was most certainly correct on that score. Cordie Clayworth had begged and pleaded with Philip to attend her ball. He’d only agreed after she promised him that Olivia and her disreputable husband wouldn’t be among the numbers. It was one thing knowing Olivia had married another while he was away, and another to have to see the happy couple paraded before him at every turn. “Cordie need not feel guilty on Olivia’s behalf. I certainly don’t hold her responsible for the situation.”
Russell sighed as though the topic had grown tedious. In all honesty, they had discussed the situation at length more than once. “She just wants you to find the blinding happiness she has found herself. So humor her, will you? Find some chit you can tolerate to stand up with at least once. Otherwise Cordie will plague you, on that you can be certain.”
Philip tapped his injured leg with his cane. “She could be Cleopatra returned, and I wouldn’t dance with her on this leg.”
“You just insist on being maudlin, don’t you?” Russell grumbled. “If not dancing, then find some girl with whom you could enjoy a nice conversation. Or better yet, one who might actually bring a smile to your face, though I’m not sure if Cordie knows any miracle workers.”
Like a good soldier following orders, but mostly to appease his friend, Philip’s eyes swept across the throng of happy guests. No. Not one girl caught his eye. Perhaps it was still too soon. Or perhaps it would always be too soon. And then he spotted a blonde a few feet away and, if Philip wasn’t mistaken, she was laughing at him. Her light eyes twinkled with undisguised mirth.
Perhaps there was something humorous behind him. Philip glanced over each of his shoulders, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back at the blonde, only to find her laughing even harder. She didn’t even try to conceal her amusement behind her fan.
“Do I have something on my face?” Philip muttered, touching his cheek as he spoke.
Russell shook his head. “Just your nose.”
Philip scowled at his friend. “Amusing as always.” Then he gestured towards the giggling chit with his head. “I think that girl over there is laughing at me.”
Russell chuckled. “Must not know you. Nothing remotely funny about you.”
“I am starting to wonder why we’re friends.”
“Friends?” Russell feigned a shocked expression. “I think of you more as a brother.” Then he turned his attention to the girl in question. “Ah, Miss Amelia Pritchard. Don’t waste your time with that one, Moore.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Philip replied gravely. He wouldn’t have even noticed the girl if she hadn’t been laughing at him, which certainly did not recommend her.
“Brilliant decision. Substandard kisser,” Russell informed him and turned his attention back to the dancers. “Now Miss Dewhurst, on the other hand…”
Philip snorted. “Good God, Russ! How many of these girls have you kissed?”
His friend shrugged. “And you doubted my scouting abilities.” Then Russell straightened. “Don’t look now, but my sister is headed this direction.”
Philip did look to his right to find that Cordie Clayworth was indeed headed in their direction. He smiled at his childhood friend who had become a beauty when he wasn’t paying attention. “My lady,” he said in way of greeting the countess and nodded his head. “You are more lovely every time I see you, Cordie.”
At his side, Russell scoffed. “There’s no need to flatter her.”
Cordie playfully rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Philip. I was plagued with three of the most awful brothers.” She smiled graciously at him. “How refreshing to spend time with a true gentleman.”
“Watch yourself, Cordie,” Russell warned. “Or you’ll have Clayworth making a dawn appointment with Moore.”
Philip glared at his friend for even broaching the subject, which was still a sore one where the two of them were concerned. “Well, if he does, I’ll be certain to get myself a much better second than the one I had the last time.”
Russell snorted. “You’ll thank me for that eventually.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” Philip realized Cordie was frowning at the two of them, and he feigned a smile for her benefit. “Apologies, Lady Clayworth. Not the best ballroom conversation, is it?”
“Just reminds me once again that the two of you are men.” She said the word as though it were a vile curse.
Russell chuckled. “Don’t know how you need to be reminded of that fact, love.” Then he gestured with his head to the other side of the ballroom. “Why did you invite Amelia Pritchard, by the way?”
Cordie stared at her brother as though he’d sprouted an extra nose. “Because she’s staying with Clayworth and me here in London, as you well know. I couldn’t very well not invite her, not that I would even want to do so. She’s a sweet girl. What is the matter with you, Russell?”
Her brother shrugged. “She’s been laughing at Philip. Can you believe it? Quite ill-mannered, if you ask me, especially as he’s not amusing in the least. Perhaps they don’t have the same manners in Wales. Isn’t that where she’s from?”
Cordie’s green eyes narrowed on her brother. “You know exactly where she’s from. Have you been imbibing, Russell Avery?”
“No. But perhaps Miss Pritchard has been. That might explain her proclivity to laughter. You should go see if you smell spirits on her breath. I’d hate for her antics to embarrass you or Clayworth.”
“If you want me to leave—” Cordie tipped her nose in the air “—you need only ask.” Then she turned on her heel and made her way around the perimeter of the ballroom, finally stopping at the strange Miss Pritchard’s side.
Hmm. Was Russell correct? Was it possible the chit was foxed? That might explain her absurd behavior.
* * *
Amelia Pritchard squeezed her new cousin’s hand. “Your ball is delightful, Cordie.”
The countess leaned close and kissed Amelia’s cheek in greeting. “Thank you, Amelia. Please tell me you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Oh, indeed. I had no idea so many people would be in Town this time of year.”
“There are always some who never leave.” Cordie glanced across the ballroom where her brother and the very serious Major Moore still stood in conversation. She frowned briefly before returning her attention to Amelia. “Tell me, are you acquainted with my dear friend Major Moore?”
“Only by reputation,” Amelia replied honestly. After all, Captain Avery might as well have given her a written report on the officer, not that she could admit as much to the countess. The captain had been very adamant on that point.
Cordie shook her head as though trying to remove a nonsensical idea from her mind. “I know this will sound ridiculous. But you weren’t, by chance, laughing at him, were you?”
“Laughing at him?” Amelia couldn’t contain her grin. She hadn’t expected Cordie to just come out and ask her that question. Then Amelia blinked, what she hoped was her most innocent blink, at the countess. “I don’t see anything amusing about the man. He looks too serious by half. Is he laughed at often?”
Cordie’s eyes narrowed on Amelia, which made her think that perhaps her innocent blink hadn’t been innocent enough. “Are you up to something, Amelia Pritchard?”
Amelia blinked again. “What could I possibly be up to?” How had Cordie figured her out so swiftly? Captain Avery wouldn’t be happy with this turn of events.
“Indeed, that is the question at hand. You and Russell were thick as thieves yesterday.”
One would think the countess would have been too busy with her doting husband and adorable son to notice anything else going on at Clayworth House. Apparently, she wasn’t. “Thieves?” Amelia echoed, laying a hand on her chest with mock indignation. “I somehow think I’ve just been insulted.”
“Mmm.” Cordie’s eyes flashed back across the room to land on Captain Avery. “More likely I know my brother better than you. And I imagine I have a part to play in this little game, too. Am I to offer an introduction to the esteemed major?”
The countess was clever. Captain Avery had warned Amelia about that. But as that was the part Cordie was to play, Amelia nodded her head. “Would you mind terribly?”
“Not at all…if you would be so good as to tell me what game it is we are playing.”
Amelia leaned closer to her new cousin and replied, “Captain Avery asked if I would help bring the major out of his shell a bit. He said his friend has been gloomy ever since returning from the continent, and he thought I could help put a smile on his face.”
Cordie sighed. “That certainly isn’t why he’s been gloomy.” Her green eyes seemed to stare right through Amelia. “Philip is a dear man, a wonderful friend, and I won’t see him hurt again, Amelia. I’ll introduce you if you wish, but you must promise to disregard anything my derelict brother has said thus far.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Cordie smiled like a woman quickly spinning a plan. “He hasn’t the mind for such things. I, on the other hand, do. And though I would like to see Philip smile again, there’s a right way to go about this, and then there’s whatever way Russell thought up.”
Amelia couldn’t help but laugh. “It wasn’t all that complicated, Cordie. I was just to charm him and make him laugh a little.”
“Easier said than done.” She shrugged. “But I believe together we can accomplish the job at hand. Do you think you’re up for the challenge?”
Now Amelia wasn’t certain. When it was the simple scheme Captain Avery had approached her with, she was just supposed to flirt with the major, coax him into being the tiniest bit social. But the way Cordie looked at her made Amelia think the countess had something else entirely up her dainty sleeve. “W-well, I-I…”
But before she could offer a protest, Cordie linked her arm with Amelia’s and began to tow her in the direction of the officers. “First of all, don’t laugh at him again. That will only raise his hackles. One would think Russell would realize that after knowing the man his whole life. What a complete dolt my brother is.”