Once Upon a Wallflower(3)By: Wendy Lyn Watson
Bella tilted her head and batted her lashes coquettishly. “Why can I not come, Maman? Emily Armbrust said that the Farley ball is sure to be a crush. Everyone who is anyone will be there.”
Kitty held up a hand in warning. “Bella, enough. You know you cannot go. We cannot risk confusion about which Mirabelle Fitzhenry is promised to Ashfield. It is crucial that Mira and Ashfield are linked publicly, so if Ashfield cries off it will be Mira who is disgraced, not you. Bella, my dear, you may be a social success, but I fear you could not weather such a blow to your reputation. Mira…well, Mira has no prospects, so she does not have so much to lose.”
No one paid the slightest attention to Mira’s grumble of annoyance.
Kitty reached out to cup Bella’s cheek tenderly, her tone melting in the face of her daughter’s displeasure. “Believe your Maman when she tells you it is for your own good that you stay home tonight.”
Bella stamped her tiny foot once more in annoyance. But there was no arguing with Kitty Fitzhenry, so Bella stood helplessly back while Kitty ushered Mira out to meet her destiny.
As predicted, the Farley ball was a crush. Nicholas Ellerby, Viscount Ashfield, stood in stoic silence, attempting to ignore the stifling heat ripe with the scent of Hungary water and humanity. Every now and then, he surreptitiously massaged the muscles of his left leg, still tense and cramped from his long ride.
His father stood at his side, his expression as bland as butter despite the wide berth the other partygoers afforded them. Nicholas rarely ventured out in London, but he’d long since grown accustomed to the curious stares and muffled conversations his presence prompted. His father on the other hand… Nicholas knew that beneath his calm exterior, his father seethed at the humiliation of being ignored by people who should be groveling at his well-shod feet.
Father and son did not speak. It had been a tense evening.
Nicholas had been annoyed when his father summoned him to London from the estate in Cornwall, but he had been livid when he learned he would be handed his future bride, wrapped in a glittering blond bow, like a child receiving a sweet. Indeed, that is how Blackwell had described Mirabelle Fitzhenry: a yellow-haired confection, sweet as orgeat and malleable as mud. Nicholas could not imagine spending his life with such a creature.
Thankfully, the lovely Miss Fitzhenry was unlikely to wed him. He would stare at her intently, stand just a little too close to her so she would be reminded of his far-superior size, rest his large dark hand on her delicate wrist, and she would become overset. She would cry off before the night ended.
Blackwell scanned the room with his supercilious gaze. “Ah. There they are,” he said, a note of smug satisfaction in his voice. He tutted softly. “I have no love for George Fitzhenry. No character, that one. But when I see him trailing behind that behemoth of a wife he has, it’s hard not to feel a pang of masculine sympathy.”
Nicholas followed his father’s gaze and spotted a stately woman, bosom like the prow of a fine sailing vessel, a man in a pea green waistcoat scurrying behind. He searched around the pair for a virginal, yellow-haired debutante, but saw no likely suspects.
Blackwell must have reached the same conclusion. “Where is the chit? If Fitzhenry fails to deliver, I’ll see the whole family in the poorhouse by morning.”
Nicholas winced at the thought of a girl being delivered to him like a new horse or a pair of Hessian boots. He reminded himself that, with his menacing appearance and more menacing reputation, this farce would soon be over.
At long last, the Fitzhenrys made their way across the crowded ballroom. George and Kitty greeted Blackwell politely, the formidable Kitty actually blushing a bit as she traded niceties with one of the most dashing rakes of her youth.
Without further ado, Blackwell pinned George with his stare. “Well?” he queried.
“Oh. Yes, of c-course,” George stammered. He grabbed the hand of a voluptuous redhead with a lopsided coif and a muslin dress stretched taut across her full breasts and thrust her inelegantly in Blackwell’s direction, where she dropped into a neat curtsy. “My Lord, may I introduce Miss Mirabelle Fitzhenry.”