Astwick House, London – May 1816
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Lady Felicity Pierce could not quite believe her eyes. Was that Phineas Granard? Viscount Carraway? At an actual ball? Heavens, was someone blackmailing Fin, or was there a dueling pistol to his back? He certainly wouldn’t be here of his own volition, that was for sure. The overly serious viscount hadn’t been remotely social in years, despite Lissy’s best prodding that he stop sulking and get on with his life.
Fin started across the ballroom and greeted Lord Liverpool with an outstretched hand. Ah, that explained everything. Fin wasn’t being blackmailed, and he hadn’t suddenly become social. He was doing what he always did - politicking.
“The dolt is more starched than his cravat,” came a deep voice from behind her.
Lissy glanced over her shoulder to find the decidedly despicable Marquess of Haversham standing just a few feet away. Handsome devil that he was, the marquess’ light blue eyes twinkled as he cast her a smug expression, one that a more foolish girl might have found charming. But Lissy had endured more than her share of that sort of man to last her a lifetime, so Haversham’s attention was completely wasted on her.
She gave the marquess the back of her head, but said loud enough for him to hear, “I’m entirely certain Lady Astwick didn’t invite you, my lord.”
Lord Haversham chuckled, moving closer to Lissy, so close the scent of his citric shaving lotion invaded her senses. “She never does,” he agreed.
“An intelligent man might make something of that. His continual lack of invite, that is.” And yet the scoundrel attended every last event the dowager Marchioness of Astwick hosted anyway, as though daring the old dragon to personally drag him, kicking and screaming all the way to her front stoop.
Haversham laughed once more. “You are more direct than most chits your age. Do you know that?”
“My widowhood allows for a certain directness.”
“Among other things,” he added silkily. “But I imagine your directness stems more from being one of Prestwick’s daughters. Not certain you’re quite as direct as Lady Juliet, but she does possess a fortune you do not, doesn’t she?”
Lissy didn’t need her sister’s fortune. Fin had made certain her allowance from Prestwick’s holdings was more than generous. She glanced back at the staid viscount across the ballroom. He was starched. Haversham was right about that. And while she had accused Fin of that very thing herself more than once over the years, she hated hearing the disreputable Haversham voice the same criticism.
She tilted her head to the side in order to better see the marquess. “Shouldn’t you be off chasing after Lady Staveley’s skirts?” The lady in question wouldn’t have a thing to do with him, but at least it would get the rogue away from Lissy.
Haversham’s rakish grin spread wider. “I have no need to chase anyone’s skirts, I’ll have you know.”
No, he probably didn’t. The man was more than handsome with his dark hair and light, piercing eyes. He exuded masculinity and raw sexuality. Despite his fascination with Lady Staveley – a most happily married woman who was quite devoted to her husband - Haversham most likely had a throng of widows and unhappily married women lining up for a turn in his bed. Widows.
Lissy narrowed her eyes on the libertine. Her widowhood did allow for a certain directness. However, it also had been the source for more than one inappropriate suggestion to her over the years. “I am so happy to hear that, my lord. Perhaps you can go entertain one of your many paramours then and leave me to myself.”
Haversham chuckled. “You are charming, Lady Felicity.”
“And here I’m trying so hard not to be.”
“A word of advice?” His light eyes twinkled once again.
“Could I possibly stop you?” she countered.
“If you smile a bit more, Carraway might actually notice you.”
Lissy’s mouth fell open. Did he think she wanted Fin’s attention? Fin was like family. He was, in fact, her half-brother’s uncle. He had, in fact, almost married Lissy’s oldest sister before her untimely death. He would have been her brother otherwise. He was nearly like her brother as it was, for heaven’s sake. A rigid, humorless brother who liked to tell her what to do, but a brother just the same.
“I doubt it would take much encouragement. You are supremely more beddable than Liverpool, after all.”
What a perfectly ridiculous thing to say. “Well, I am so relieved to hear it as I’d considered Lord Liverpool my main competition on the marriage mart this year.”
Haversham laughed once more, a sound Lissy was quickly coming to despise. “Something tells me the last thing you’re looking for is another husband.”
For a moment, Lissy’s heart stopped, and a dreadful chill washed over her. At her tender age, everyone assumed she wanted to marry again, to have a second chance at a happily ever after, but even if that was a possibility, she would never willingly go through such an experience ever again. But how in the world did Haversham know that? Was she so very transparent to everyone or just to him?
“That is, I’d wager you’re as anxious to find another husband as I am to find another wife.”
“Your own wife or someone else’s?” she asked.
“Touché.” His eyes danced with mirth, then he sobered a bit, cocking his head toward the dance floor. “One of your suitors, I’m sure.”
Lissy glanced in the general direction Haversham had indicated and suppressed a groan when she spotted Lord Richard Shelley approaching her.
“I’ll give Carraway this. He’s more interesting than him,” the marquess said under his breath, just loud enough for Lissy to hear.
She looked up at the scoundrel beside her and said, “I’m not certain you’re the best judge for what constitutes an interesting gentleman, my lord.”
“My dear Lady Felicity—” he smirked “—I am more qualified than most to make such assessments.”
“Lady Felicity,” Lord Richard began softly once he reached her. “I had hoped I might persuade you to stand up with me for the next set.”
Lissy smiled, as warmly as she was able, at the far-from-interesting gentleman before her. “Thank you, my lord, but I’m not dancing this evening. I am a bit parched however, if you’d like to bring me some punch.”
A bit crestfallen, Lord Richard nodded and then started off for the refreshment table.
Haversham slid so close to Lissy she could actually feel him chuckle beside her. “I think you wounded that poor man’s heart.”
“I’m certain he’ll survive.”
“Heartless wench. I’m liking you better and better.”
* * *
“Good God!” Phineas Granard, Viscount Carraway, couldn’t quite see straight as the edges of his vision were tinged slightly red.
“Beg your pardon, Carraway?” Lord Liverpool replied, but Fin barely heard the Prime Minister.
Honestly, with the ringing in his hears, he couldn’t even hear himself think. What the devil was Lissy doing? Had she lost her fool mind? Was she actually flirting with the Marquess of Haversham?
Fin gritted his teeth. Keeping that chit out of trouble was a never-ending chore. He cursed Lucas Beckford for holing himself up in Derbyshire. The blasted man should be here keeping an eye on Lissy, not playing nursemaid to Juliet. All right, so the man’s wife was expecting, Fin begrudgingly acknowledged. Beckford did have a perfectly reasonable excuse not to be in Town for the season, but why the devil he and Juliet had allowed Lissy to stay in London alone made no sense at all. They knew what a flighty little thing she was! And now she was cavorting with Haversham, of all the damned people in Town.
Truthfully, Lissy probably didn’t know how dangerous the marquess was. Very few ladies her age did, but she was most definitely aware Haversham possessed a blackened reputation. Everyone was aware of that. Good God, Georgie would roll over in her grave if she knew the company her little sister was keeping this evening.
Fin took a steadying breath. One would have thought that sometime within the last three years, he’d have gotten over her, that the pain of losing her would have dulled a bit, that he’d have made a step or two towards getting on with his life. But he hadn’t. Fin wasn’t certain how to move forward or if he even wanted to. Georgie had been everything to him. She was perfect. Perfect for him. He could search the world over a hundred times and he’d never find a woman like her in his lifetime.
Fin’s gaze stayed on Lissy, her flaxen curls bobbing up and down as she laughed at something her scurrilous companion had said. How the devil she and Georgie were sired by the same man was a complete mystery. The two of them must have inherited the traits from their respective mothers. That was the only answer. They didn’t think the same, behave the same or even look the same. Yet, Georgie had fretted over all of her younger siblings, more like a mother than a sister. If she were still here, she would have been more than upset by Lissy’s sudden friendship with Haversham.
“I say, Carraway,” Lord Liverpool’s voice pushed through the deafening roar in Fin’s ears. “Are you all right?”
Fin shook his head, not wanting to go into the particulars, but he didn’t really have a choice. “It looks like my nephew’s sister is in over her head, is all.”
Lord Liverpool turned his attention towards Lissy and Haversham across the room. “Prestwick’s sister?”
Fin nodded. “I am sorry, sir. I’d love to continue this conversation, but I really—”
“I completely understand, Carraway. I have female relations my own.”
Lissy wasn’t really his relation, but there was no point in wasting time explaining the intricacies of his connection to the chit. Not when she was looking up at Haversham as though he’d personally hung the moon in the sky. “Thank you. I’ll see you soon, sir.”
Fin started across the ballroom, his temper rising with each step. Foolish girl. What in the world was Lissy thinking? Was she even thinking at all, that was a better question! Spending time in Haversham’s company could ruin nearly any girl’s reputation. Just because she was a widow didn’t mean she didn’t have her good name to protect.
“Lissy,” he grumbled in way of greeting when he reached her. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
“Carraway.” Haversham nodded.
Fin speared the malevolent marquess with a look that said better than words ever could what the man could go do with himself, then he turned his attention back to Lissy, whose blue eyes flashed with something Fin couldn’t quite identify. Annoyance, humor, mischievousness. A combination of the three, perhaps.
“Uncle Fin.” She smiled innocently, though she knew full well he hated it when she called him that.
“I’m not your uncle,” he said, and if he had a farthing for every time he’d had to utter those words to her…
“You can call me Uncle Marc, if you’d like,” Haversham tossed in. The suggestive tone to the man’s voice grated Fin’s nerves like an electric jolt to his nether regions.
“She’ll call you no such thing,” Fin growled. He narrowed his eyes on the marquess. “In fact, she shouldn’t even be seen in your presence.” Then he gestured towards the main entrance with his head. “So why don’t you take your leave, Haversham?”