A Defense of Honor
When Katherine "Kit" FitzGilbert turned her back on London society more than a decade ago, she determined never to set foot in a ballroom again. But when business takes her to London and she's forced to run for her life, she stumbles upon not only a glamorous ballroom but also Graham, Lord Wharton. What should have been a chance encounter becomes much more as Graham embarks on a search for his friend's missing sister and is convinced Kit knows more about the girl than she's telling.
After meeting Graham, Kit finds herself wishing things could have been different for the first time in her life, but what she wants can't matter. Long ago, she dedicated herself to helping women escape the same scorn that drove her from London and raising the innocent children caught in the crossfire. And as much as she desperately wishes to tell Graham everything, revealing the truth may come at too high a price for those she loves.
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Graham, the Viscount Wharton, heir to the earldom of Grableton, pride of the Cambridge fencing team, coveted party guest, and generally well-liked member of both Brooke’s and White’s, was bored.
While the ball swirling around him held as much sparkle and elegance as ever, a dullness had taken the sheen off everything lately. The years he’d spent traveling the world after school had shown him the brilliance and variety of life, but since he’d been back in England, there’d been nothing but routine.
How long since he’d seen something new? Someone new? Three years? Four?
It wasn’t so much that he wanted to chase adventure as he had in his youth—at a year past thirty he was more than ready to stay home—but was it too much to ask that his days have a little variety to them?
Everything and everyone simply looked the same.
“This year’s young ladies seem to be lovelier than past years,” Mr. Crispin Sherrington said, drawing Graham’s thoughts away from his maudlin wanderings and back to the conversation he was having with two old acquaintances from school.
Lord Maddingly jabbed Mr. Sherrington with his elbow and chuckled. “The lighter your pockets, the prettier the partridges.”
Even the conversations were the same, and they weren’t any more interesting on their forty-second iteration than they were on their first. Different players and occasionally different motives, but Graham could say his lines by rote. “Are you looking to marry
this year, Sherrington?”
Sherrington, a second son with limited prospects, slid a finger beneath his cravat and stretched his neck. “I don’t have a choice. Pa’s been ill, and when he’s in the ground I’ll have nothing. My brother Seymour is a little too thrilled at the idea of cutting me
off when he inherits.”
Maddingly grimaced. “At least your father didn’t gamble it all away. You should see the mess I’m left with. I’ve got to build up the coffers if I hope to keep the roof over my head.”
Graham resisted the urge to sigh. There were better ways for a man to further his fortune, but that opinion wasn’t very popular among his peers. Instead of suggesting either man learn how to invest what funds they had or possibly even endeavor to save a bit, he continued on the conversation’s normal course. “Who has the deepest dowry?”
Past experience told him that question was all that was required for him to seem like he cared. The others could hold a passionate debate about it without Graham’s participation. Which was good, because he simply couldn’t get excited about discussing how much money a man was willing to pay to get another man to marry his daughter.
It was all well and good to have a bit of support when starting a life together, but shouldn’t the lady herself be a bit more of the enticement? She was, after all, the one a man was actually going to have to see for the rest of his life.
How had he ended up in a conversation with these two anyway? Graham’s gaze wandered across the ballroom once more. Where were his friends? Granted, Mr. Aaron Whitworth probably wasn’t in attendance, as he found socializing endlessly awkward, but Oliver,
Lord Farnsworth, should be around somewhere.
The room fell into an unfocused blur until a flash of green near the terrace doors caught Graham’s attention, making him blink furiously to bring everything into focus.
When he finally got the terrace doors to settle into their crisp lines of windowpanes and heavy drapery, no one was there. At least, no one wearing the shade of green he knew he’d seen a moment earlier.
The doors were closed, keeping the revelers sheltered from the unseasonably cold night, so where had the person come from? Had she gone outside? Was she coming back in?
“What is your opinion of her, Wharton?”
Graham pulled his gaze from the windowed doors lining the far wall and glanced at Sherrington’s raised eyebrows. With a tilt of his head, Graham tried to appear deep in thought. And he was. Only he was trying to come up with a statement that wouldn’t
reveal he’d been ignoring the other two men, not considering the merits of any particular girl.
“Her family is good enough,” he finally said. That should apply to every girl in the room. “She isn’t likely to cause you much grief.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t many girls that second sentence didn’t apply to either. Most of the gently bred women had been raised to smile and simper and act like nothing was ever wrong. It was part of what made them remarkably interchangeable. Which
was probably why Graham was no closer to marriage at thirty-one than he’d been at twenty-one. He didn’t want to lose track of his wife in the melee because he couldn’t distinguish her from someone else.
Maddingly nodded in agreement with Graham’s vague statement. “She might even be willing to live in the country while you stay in the city.”
Sherrington scoffed. “Can’t afford that nonsense.” He frowned. “Think she’ll expect such a thing, Wharton?”
How should he know? His parents enjoyed eating breakfast together every morning and talking in their private parlor into the night. He wasn’t exactly the person to ask about distant marriages. Still, he didn’t want his companions to know that he couldn’t hold up his end of the conversation even if they’d given him a bucket to put it in. “Many matrons find a quiet life within the city, so she’ll have no problem being more settled and less sociable.”
Unless, of course, the woman was a harridan or bluestocking, but by the time Sherrington discovered that, he’d have bigger problems than Graham’s poor advice. Of course, the chances of Sherrington considering such a woman were nonexistent. He wasn’t looking for distinct and memorable.
Unlike Graham. Who had apparently imagined a splash of bright green in the shape of a dress because he was that desperate to meet someone who didn’t bore him. A woman he could even begin to consider making a life with.
Sherrington and Maddingly continued their discussion, debating whether or not the girl’s father would be amenable to Sherrington’s suit. Graham made sure to pay a token of attention to the conversation so as not to be caught off guard again. Most of his
attention was on the women dancing by, though. One wore a blue dress, the color distinct enough to stand out in a crowd. It wasn’t as bold as a bright green, but it was at least unusual. The girl was probably less inane than the rest of them.
“I’d best move into position if I want to ask her for the next set of dances.” Sherrington straightened his coat and nodded to his companions. “To the gallows, gentlemen.”
Graham grinned. “Rather confident, isn’t he?”
Maddingly laughed and wished his friend luck.
“Charville’s girl won’t be enough for me, I’m afraid.” Maddingly adjusted his coat. “Only the biggest catch of the season will do for me.”
Maddingly’s difficulties weren’t as bad as he made them seem, so Graham left him to his self-sacrificing monologue. The girl in green was more intriguing, even if she were only in his imagination. He turned his attention to the more deeply colored gowns of the matrons and spinsters. Still no vibrant spring green.
When Maddingly stopped talking, Graham continued the conversation, more out of habit than actual curiosity. “Who have you settled on, then?”
Whatever name Maddingly responded with didn’t matter, because there, barely visible through the limbs of a cluster of potted trees along the far wall, was a patch of green. How had she gotten all the way over there without him seeing her?
“Yes,” Maddingly continued, “I think Lady Thalia will be delighted by my intention to court her.”
Graham actually knew who the mildly popular Lady Thalia was, and that far better matches than Maddingly were taking her for a turn around the floor, but he wasn’t about to contradict the man. Especially not now that he knew the woman in green wasn’t imaginary. Though why would a woman wear such an eye-catching color if she intended to plant herself behind the potted shrubbery all evening?
Plant herself behind the shrubbery.
A grin crossed Graham’s face as he chuckled at his own cleverness. Now that he’d found the woman, he had a desperate need to meet her, but first he had to get away from Maddingly. “Why don’t you start by asking her to dance?”
The branches parted slightly, and a hand reached through and plucked a petite duchesse pastry off the tray of a passing servant.
Was she hiding? Well, obviously she was hiding, but was it from a persistent suitor or an overbearing mother?
With a grim but determined look, Maddingly nodded and made his way around the edge of the ballroom. Graham wished him well and meant it, but he was more interested in watching another servant carry a tray loaded with food past the grouping of trees. Again the hand reached through and grabbed a morsel as the footman passed. Why didn’t she simply go to the refreshment table and get a plate of food?
His palms began to itch with the same excitement he’d had every time he boarded a ship bound for a new part of the world. It was the itch of curiosity, of questions that needed answers. At last, here was something new and unusual.
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