April 1816, London
William Ludlowe wagers five thousand pounds that Miss Julia St. Claire will become the next Countess of Clivesden.
Benedict Revelstoke reread the lines in White’s infamous betting book. What the devil? His fingers constricted about the quill, just shy of crushing it. Right. He’d been about to sign on his friend’s wager. Some idiocy, no doubt—hardly worth the bother now.
The book’s most recent inscription was scrawled, for all the world to see, in gold ink, no less. How fitting. Gold ink for Ludlowe, whom many of the ton’s ladies dubbed their golden boy. The man’s lack of a title did nothing to diminish their opinion.
Upperton nudged him. “What’s the matter? Your feet coming over icy all the sudden?”
Lead blocks would be more accurate, but Benedict was not about to admit to that. He laid the quill aside and jabbed a finger at the heavy vellum page. “Have you seen this?”
The page darkened as his oldest friend peered over his shoulder. “Clivesden? Thought he was married. Ludlowe’s a jumped-up bacon brain. And what’s Miss Julia got to do with either of them?”
“I’ve no idea, but I intend to find out.” He released a breath between clenched teeth. “Appalling how so-called gentlemen will lay bets on young ladies of good reputation.”
“Young ladies in general or Miss Julia in particular?”
Ignoring the gibe, Benedict turned on his heel and strode down the steps to the pavement. A glance at his pocket watch told him it was ten minutes past eleven, still early by the ton’s standards. That was something. At least he knew where he’d find Julia at such an hour.
He sighed at the prospect of dodging a passel of marriage-minded misses. But he’d be damned before he let some idiot besmirch her reputation.
Julia stiffened her arms, but her dance partner refused to take the hint. Dash it, he held her too close for propriety’s sake. Hang propriety—on that last turn, he’d actually tightened his grip so much her breasts grazed the front of his tailcoat. Too close for her comfort. So she did what any self-respecting young lady would do and trod on his toes.
“I do beg your pardon, my lord.” The lie slid easily from her lips.
Lord Chuddleigh’s smile faded, and his grip slackened along with his jowls. “Not at all.”
Thankfully, the final notes of the waltz rose to the high ceiling of Lady Posselthwaite’s ballroom a moment later, and Julia backed out of her partner’s greedy embrace, stopping short when her skirt brushed against a dancer to her rear. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Chuddleigh eyed her up and down, before his red-rimmed gaze halted at a spot several inches below her chin. “Are you engaged for the next set?”
What could he be thinking? The roué. He was forty if he was a day, and a strong hint of brandy surrounded him like a cloud.
Julia made a show of consulting her dance card. “No. I actually find I’m rather exhausted,” she added before he could ask her for the next dance.
“It’s the crowd. Dreadful crush as it is every year, of course. Perhaps a turn on the terrace?”
Drat. The man was relentless. Julia cast a swift glance about the ballroom. Unfortunately, Lord Chuddleigh was right about the crush. So many members of the ton packed into one spot, the men in starched linen and intricate cravats, the ladies in pastel ball gowns, it was a wonder anyone could move at all. Attendees wove past one another with polite smiles and quick pardons, intertwining like maypole dancers.
Convenient for Lord Chuddleigh, though, if he wanted an excuse to brush against her a bit more. Not that he had to expend much of an effort the way his paunch preceded him. She should never have agreed to the first set, but he’d seemed a safe enough choice when he asked. At his age and still unattached, she’d expected he wouldn’t turn into a serious suitor.
Apparently, Chuddleigh had formed other ideas.
The crowd made it impossible to pick out a convenient means of escape. Her father was too occupied in the card room to concern himself with her dance partners. The ballroom—the marriage mart—that was her mother’s exclusive domain. Papa was all too happy to leave Mama with the responsibility of landing wealthy, titled husbands for Julia and her sister, while he gambled to increase the family’s meager earnings. Alas, for Mama aimed high in the hopes of giving her daughters what she had never had—social standing and influence.
In short, power. But such power came at the price of keeping up with fashion and maintaining a house in Town.
“I think a lemonade would be quite sufficient,” she finally replied with a weak smile.
Lord Chuddleigh pressed thick lips together but acquiesced with a nod. “Do not move from that spot. I shall return anon.”
The moment he disappeared behind Lady Whitby’s bright orange turban, Julia elbowed her way in the opposite direction. She’d left her older sister amid a group of twittering hopefuls in their first season. With any luck, Julia could use them and their mamas as a shield against any further unwelcome advances.
She discovered Sophia next to a potted palm, deep in conversation with the dowager Countess of Epperley. Between the plant’s fronds and the matron’s ostrich plumes, Sophia was well camouflaged.
On Julia’s approach, the dowager snapped a lorgnette to her face and eyed her from her sleek, honey-colored coiffure to the tips of her silk-clad toes. A frown fit to curdle new milk indicated Julia had passed muster.
“Oh, Julia.” A rosy glow suffused Sophia’s normally pearl-white complexion.
Julia pasted on a smile, knowing she was in for at least half an hour’s worth of gushing, and that was just in public. Depending on what time they made it home tonight, Sophia could easily chatter away the remaining hours before dawn in her ebullience.
As long as she didn’t end up sobbing herself to sleep, as had happened all too often in the past. So full of affection, Sophia. If only she hadn’t bestowed her heart on a man who only occasionally acknowledged her existence. On such evenings, the urge to pull her sister into a hug warred with the desire to give Sophia a stern talking-to.
Tonight, apparently, was one of those evenings.
“My lady,” Sophia breathed, “you simply must repeat to my sister what you’ve just told me.”
The dowager pursed her lips and subjected Julia to a second inspection, as if she might find evidence of Julia’s unworthiness to hear the latest gossip. Defensively, Julia spread out her fan and held it in front of her bosom, before Lady Epperley concluded her gown revealed too much.
“There’s no need to sound so pleased about it,” the old woman huffed. “You young chits, you have no conception of the serious nature of events.”
Julia cast a sidelong glance at her sister. Such high color in Sophia’s cheeks was normally associated with only one person.
“Then I shall have to tell her myself,” Sophia pronounced.
“You shall do no such thing.” The dowager harrumphed, setting both her jowls and plumes a-shudder. “It’s a perfect tragedy, I tell you. It must be announced with the appropriate solemnity. It isn’t as if we were exchanging the latest on-dit.”
“What’s this about the latest on-dit?” growled a familiar voice.
Julia smiled warmly at her childhood companion. Thank goodness. Better Benedict than Chuddleigh turning up with the lemonade.
At his appearance, Sophia inclined her head.
“Ah, Revelstoke.” Acknowledging Benedict with a nod, Julia suppressed a jolt of surprise. She’d become so used to seeing him in his scarlet uniform that his bearing in eveningwear and starched cravat startled her. By rights, he should have looked like any other man of the ton, but the black superfine of his coat, matched to his ebony hair, only served to set off his dark complexion and sparkling blue eyes.
Snap! The lorgnette put in a reappearance. The dowager’s frown lines deepened as she inspected the new arrival. Her gaze lingered on his sharp cheekbones, square jaw, and shaggy waves of hair that hung nearly to his shoulders, too long to be fashionable.
Or, for that matter, respectable.
“In my day, a young lady would never dream of addressing a gentleman in such a familiar manner. Why, I never called my husband by anything other than his title in all the years of our marriage, even in the most intimate of settings.”
Benedict’s shoulder brushed against Julia’s as he leaned close and whispered, “That was more than I needed to know about their marriage.”
She ducked behind her fan to hide both her grin and the blush that suddenly heated her cheeks. And why should she blush over Benedict of all people? She’d experienced the warmth of his breath wafting just beneath her ear on any number of previous occasions. She ought to be long accustomed to his brand of cutting commentary.
The dowager let out another harrumph, raised her considerable chin, and sailed off in a cloud of ostrich feathers and plum-colored silk.
“I believe she overheard you,” Julia said.
“Without a doubt. The old dragon just trod on my foot.”
Sophia giggled into her fan.
He turned his gaze on Julia, and her heart gave an odd thump. Normally, when he had a chance to seek her out at these functions, it was for one of two reasons—to save her from overzealous suitors or to escape from the pack of society mamas and their daughters. They might pass an agreeable hour or two on the sidelines exchanging pithy observations on the ton’s foibles, laughing together as she tried to match him in wit.
In all the years of their friendship, she’d had occasion to witness many moods etched on his face. Rarely had he turned so serious an expression on her, and never this strange intensity. Thump. Another pang in her chest. And where was that coming from?
Rather than press her fan to the spot, she tapped his forearm. “What’s happened?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but Sophia chose that moment to interrupt. “I suppose I’ll have to tell the news myself.”
Excerpted from A Most Scandalous Proposal by Ashlyn Macnamara. Copyright © 2013 by Ashlyn Macnamara. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.