June 19, 1811
Damn, it was hot. Not that Alex minded heat ordinarily. Indeed, he liked few things better than shucking off his clothes on a sun-drenched beach and letting the golden warmth touch every inch of his body. But that was a thought for a different time, so far removed from his present circumstances that it might have belonged to a world entirely apart from benighted England.
Worse yet, the heat stank. The combined smells of two thousand bodies, all liberally perfumed, were bad enough but the candles set everywhere in silver sconces and crystal chandeliers throughout the ballroom added the weight of melting wax to the already stultifying air. The odor clung to the heavy blue silk draperies festooned with the white fleur-de-lis in honor of the evening's exalted guests, the exiled French royals whose presence provided a fragile excuse for the Prince Regent to show off his latest extravagance.
The tall windows stood open, admitting not the relief of a freshening breeze but the stench of the London streets beyond and the crowds that still thronged them. Only the select few, if two thousand could be called that, had received the coveted invitation to the unveiling of the newly redecorated Carlton House. For weeks, the sound of teeth gnashing had competed with the frantic drumbeat of entreaties as the neglected jockeyed to avoid social catastrophe. How gladly he would have yielded his entree to anyone who would have it but that had never been a choice. He was, for better or worse, compelled to be precisely where he was, if only for a few more hours.
It was truly a challenge to decide which was worse, the heat, the smell, or the ever-mounting noise as the chattering guests struggled to be heard over each other and the combined efforts of the musicians playing manfully despite the total absence of any room in which to dance. Briefly, he sought distraction of a minor sort with the charming brunette who had attached herself to him shortly after his arrival. Lady Eleanor Lampert was the well-endowed widow of a wealthy lord who had married her when she had scarcely seventeen summers and he had solidly seventy. Presumably, he understood the risk. Dead six months later, it was widely rumored that he departed this world with his banner at an impressive full mast.
So now did Lady Lampert keep herself well amused. She shunned remarriage, being sensible about maintaining her independence, and chose her pleasures with care. He found her a skilled and worldly bedmate, which suited him perfectly. A woman clinging to his arm was acceptable in the short term; one clinging to his life was another matter entirely. When that happened, not if but when for there was no question that he would wed, it would be in that entirely other world for which he found himself so unexpectedly yearning. Duty intervened, keeping him in England longer than he would have liked. But duty was life, life duty. He could hardly complain of the course he himself had set.
All the same, he had to leave soon. Not only this damnable ball but the country itself. His responsibilities were fulfilled, for a time at any rate, and he had been away too long. Just a few more days and he would be free . . .
A few days. Hard to believe she had been searching for him only that long. It seemed a lifetime. Tromping about London, calling at his residence, leaving her card, ever ignored, slowly realizing he must have given orders after the first day that she was not to be admitted or given any information as to his whereabouts. Her cheeks still flamed at such treatment but she was determined. Embarrassment and frustration mattered no more than did discomfort. Even anger counted very little. She would find him. He would hear her out. He would help her. She would succeed. To fail was incomprehensible.
Perhaps it had not occurred to the exalted Lord Alex Haverston Darcourt, Marquess of Boswick, Earl of Letham, Baron Dedham that Lady Joanna Hawkforte was not without resources apart from her stubbornness. She might be lacking in allies among the ton, preferring as she did to keep the greatest possible distance apart from them, but she had money enough to acquire the season's most coveted invitation through the simple expediency of bribery and to hire a clever little man who skulked near her quarry's residence long enough to confirm his movements. Alerted to his departure for the Carlton House fete Joanna had proceeded there in all haste.
Haste she strove mightily to conceal as she continued her search. Long ago, in what seemed another life, her beloved mother had taught her the language of the fan. Supposedly created by a clever Spanish lady, the coded messages allowed for a world of communication safe from eager ears. But not from discerning eyes, Joanna thought as she opened the exquisite fan of embroidered ivory silk that had been her mother's. It suited her unmodish gown of pale green silk well enough and that, in turn, complemented her hazel eyes and honey-hued hair sufficiently, but no such fashionable considerations had compelled her to bring the fan along. Rather had she brought it on impulse, for moral support. Her mother was long gone, her father as well. What family she might have left was lost on a distant shore. The fan, clutched tightly, gave her courage. She closed her eyes for just a moment and opened them to find herself staring over the ribboned silk at a man of such shocking beauty as to make her breath catch.
He appeared to her first in profile, the stark planes and angles of his face recalling the Greek statues she had admired five years ago during a visit to Athens with Royce. The high forehead beneath a sweep of midnight black hair, the forceful nose, full mouth and firm chin aroused irresistible memories of the gods immortalized in marble.
Not that any stone could do justice to him. He radiated vitality and a kind of raw male strength that riveted her. When he turned slightly, she saw that his skin was bronzed by the sun. His brows appeared as dark wings set above eyes that even at a distance gave him the look of a hunter. Against the gaudy court fashion of the day, he wore black unrelieved but for a shower of white lace at his wrists and throat. Lace that served only to emphasize his unrelenting masculinity. Taller than any other man present, he held his head with a natural regality perfectly suited to the power of his body that no amount of tailoring could conceal. There was royalty in the room, all right, but it was of altogether a different sort from that of the plump Prince and his exiled French friends.
Different. Alien. And if the legends were to be believed, ancient.
Yet he was also English and just then she was glad to remind herself of that.
He smiled suddenly and she noticed the woman at his side, the object of his amusement. A very beautiful woman with gleaming brunette hair and a magnificent figure draped in a gown of scarlet sarcenet cut in the tunic style with a low neckline and flowing lines that showed the lady to good advantage. Joanna required but a moment to put a name to that exquisite face: Lady Eleanor Lampert. The notorious Lady Lampert whose reward for kicking up her heels at propriety was the adoration of society. Capricious society, to be sure, and wounding when it chose. Best she concentrate on the man.
Or better yet, reach him. But that proved a daunting task for he was surrounded by a horde of hangers-on and sycophants that surpassed even those dancing attendance on the evening's host. Prinny might have resented that but he was said to admire Darcourt above all men, even fierce Wellington and fastidious Brummell. No wonder the elusive marquess was present this evening. He must have known his absence at so august an occasion would leave the Prince Regent desolate. Mindful of his responsibilities, whatever exactly those were, he would set aside his well-known aversion for such events.
No doubt Prinny was pleased but so, it seemed, was the entire ton, men and women alike, each and every one of whom appeared set on speaking with Darcourt. Joanna tried so long as she could manage to get even a small degree closer to him, only to find herself hurled back by a solid wall of people that proved to be impenetrable.
By midnight, exhaustion threatened to overcome her. It was all well and good for polite society to linger in bed until noon but she could never manage it and most especially not since worry had become the constant goad to wakefulness. Coming to London had been her last resort, so she thought. But when no help was forthcoming from the Ministry, not even the acknowledgment that Royce could be in danger, she had conceived her admittedly desperate plan. To achieve it, she needed Darcourt's assistance. The unavailable Darcourt who even within sight remained beyond her reach.
Really, my lord, aside from managing to maintain himself in Lisbon, I fail to see what Wellington has accomplished to make him worthy of such praise as one hears these days. It's all bluster, if you ask me."
Alex had never had nor did he now have any particular desire to discuss military matters, a supremely sensitive subject upon which he was loath to reveal his particular expertise. But neither could he ignore the tall, slender man who had approached him through the press of the crowd. Charles, Second Earl of Grey and a power among the Whigs, was a close confidante of the Prince Regent's and thought likely to take the mantle as Foreign Minister when Parliament finally removed restrictions on the Regent's powers as it was expected to do within the year. Assuming, of course, that the stricken George III did not recover his sanity sufficiently to resume his rule.
"Wellington wears down the French," Alex said quietly. "Napoleon will tire of the drain on his men and materiel. He will turn elsewhere."
Grey shot him an assessing look quickly masked behind a smile of gentility. "Toward Britain, my lord? Is that what you expect?"
Alex hesitated. He was tempted to shrug off the question, yet he respected Grey. Besides, the well-placed aristocrat might be a convenient way to send a message. The Whigs assumed they would form a new government when Prinny came into his own and booted out his father's Tories. Alex privately thought they were wrong. Still, it didn't hurt to put a bee in more than one bonnet.
"Toward Russia," he said quietly. "Nothing else will salve his loss against the Turks."
Grey made a surprised sound he quickly sought to conceal, the result being that he seemed to bark. "My lord, Russia is Bonaparte's ally."
"An uneasy partnership, wouldn't you say? Rather like yoking two bulls together."
"Perhaps . . . Is this the Akoran view then? Is that what is expected beyond the Pillars of Hercules?"
Alex raised an eyebrow but did not reply directly. "I do not speak for Akora, my lord. Recall, I hold no diplomatic brief. My presence at Court is purely unofficial."
"That is not the prevailing opinion, sir. It is believed you do indeed speak for your half brother, the Vanax. But perhaps even more importantly, you listen. If I may say, you do both very effectively."
"I appreciate the sentiment, my lord, but as you know, Akora maintains its sovereignty by maintaining its neutrality. Whatever thoughts may be held there about the current European situation are not spoken of beyond the confines of Akora itself."
"I defer to your wisdom in such matters, my lord." Grey inclined his head courteously. Yet the faint smile he allowed himself suggested he had in no way altered his opinion of Alex's true mission in England.
Nor, in all fairness, was there any reason why he should.
Grey turned his attention to Lady Lampert who exerted her usual effortless charm. They chatted amicably, Alex only half listening. He acknowledged the eager smiles and greetings of those clustered about him with a barely perceptible nod but did not let his attention linger long enough to invite conversation with any. Time had inured him to the changeless litany of gambits thrown out by those seeking to cultivate him. It was always the same: men of greed and ambition eager to boast of knowing him, dangling hints of political connections, claims of rare business opportunities, false camaraderie masking envy and sometimes even fear. And then there were the women. Between the eager mamas pushing forward their chicks in hopes of catching a title glittering with fortune and the blatant predators drawn by the exotic mystery he represented, he might have foresworn the ill-named gentler sex. Fortunately, there were also those like Eleanor, committed to enjoying life free of commitments.
It was all so unlike Akora, home of his heart. There women were . . . women, as they were meant to be. Understanding their place in life, they were content, never bold or intemperate as were so many English women, including the one staring at him over the rim of her fan.
He had noticed her before in passing. For a scant moment, his eyes had fixed on her. She seemed distantly familiar in some way he could not place. Now, looking at her more directly, he felt a sudden shock of recognition. That honeyed hair, not quite blond or brunette, put him in mind of the beaches of Akora when they were damp from the lapping waves. And those eyes, slightly raised at the corners, staring at him with rare intelligence and determination.
She had come to see him several days before. A footman had brought her card, received his instructions that she was to be sent away. He had stood at the window of his library and watched her return to her carriage. That should have ended the matter but it seemed the lady was persistent. Despite himself, he could not deny a spurt of sympathy for her plight. If the rumors flying about London were to be believed, Royce Hawkforte had shown singularly bad sense or mayhap merely too great determination.
Alex's mouth tightened as he continued to contemplate her contemplating him. His own love and loyalty to his half brother made her concern understandable, yet there was nothing he could do for her. To involve himself in the disappearance of a British noble inevitably would involve Akora and that would be madness indeed. Besides, for all that he could understand her actions, he could also disapprove of them. The English were altogether too lax with their women. The lowest Akoran male would know better.
Deliberately, he held her gaze a moment longer before turning away. From the corner of his eye, he saw her frown and knew his point was taken. He had cut her quite directly, leaving no doubt of his unwillingness to acknowledge her. If a momentary twinge of guilt assailed him, he ignored it. For her sake, she should be left with no misapprehensions. Best she return to the countryside where she belonged. A few minutes later, when he glanced circumspectly in her direction, he expected to see that Lady Joanna Hawkforte was gone.
Excerpted from Dream Island by Josie Litton. Copyright © 2002 by Josie Litton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.