Hair up, hems down. Remember your governess’s etiquette lessons, forget the stablehands’ vocabularies. Curtsy at the drop of a title, but never run, laugh out loud, or dance with the same man more than twice, even if he is your almost-betrothed.
Daphne’s head would have been spinning, if not for her early forays into society at Brighton. Lady Whilton congratulated herself that her daughter had done so well: She was well behaved, well informed, well dressed, and well endowed. Welcome to London, Miss Whilton.
Daphne was presented at the Queen’s drawing room, then at a ball in her honor at Howell House, where she and her mother were staying, at the earl’s insistence. They couldn’t very well take up residence with Uncle Albert, not when he’d turned Whilton House into a sinkhole of depravity no respectable member of the ton would enter. Besides, he hadn’t invited them. The earl had, citing the absurd expense of renting a suitable location for the Season, and the acres of empty rooms at his Grosvenor Square mansion. It would do his heart good, he said, to see the ballroom in use again, to hear the sounds of music and laughter. And there could be no hint of impropriety attached, not with the earl’s widowed sister and the baroness’s misanthropic spinster cousin in residence, and his son not. Graydon had bachelor quarters at the Albany, but he was there to lead Daphne out for the first dance at her come-out ball.
“I can see I’m going to have to look to my laurels,” he told her as they took the lead spot for the cotillion.
Daphne was too lost in her own dreamworld to pay attention. Here she was, eighteen and finally Out, in the arms of the most attractive man in the ballroom, and he was her own dear Graydon. Soon their betrothal would be formally announced, then the wedding, and her life would be started at last. She floated on a cloud of joy, his hand in hers, his spicy cologne scenting the air, his flowers in her hair, his locket at her neck. His. Life was so intoxicating, she had no need for champagne.
“I say, success gone to your head already, that you don’t even listen to another compliment?”
She looked up at him, into teasing brown eyes she knew so well. “Oh, I’m sorry, Gray. I was woolgathering, I suppose, just thinking how happy I am right now. The room looks so lovely, and everyone has been so kind. What were you saying?”
“I was trying to pour the butter-boat over your head, brat, by telling you what a success you’ll be by morning. You’ll have every beau in town at your feet by week’s end, unless I miss my guess. They’ll be writing poems to your eyebrows or your elbows, or whatever poppycock is in fashion this sennight. Just see that your head doesn’t get turned by all the praise.”
“Gammon,” she said with a laugh, flashing her dimples at him. Trust Gray to try to make her feel comfortable when all eyes in the room were on them, as if she cared what anyone else thought of her. He’d already complimented her with a wide grin before the family supper earlier. His father had said she was almost as pretty as her mother at that age, high praise indeed, but Gray had whispered, “Fustian, no one can hold a candle to my Daffy.”
It wasn’t just Spanish coin he was handing her either, Graydon reflected. His little tagalong chum had improved no end. She almost reached his shoulder now, for one thing, especially if you counted the blond curls piled high on top of her head. They were threaded through with blue ribbons that matched her eyes, and the white roses he’d sent, on his aunt’s advice. Daphne was dressed all in white, of course, but with a gauzy overskirt embroidered with tiny blue flowers that made her seem a fairy sprite. That fall of lace at the neckline was a clever touch, too—Lady Whilton’s fine hand, no doubt—adding a hint of mystery where he knew very well there wasn’t much of a secret, or anything else. Still, she was the comeliest deb of this season, he thought with pride, but perhaps too comely. Those dimples were deuced appealing.
Gray frowned over Daphne’s head at the young bucks on the sidelines who were ogling his partner as if she were a tempting morsel. “You’re no lobster patty,” he fumed out loud, causing her to miss a step.
She giggled. “If that’s a sample of the handsome compliments I can expect to receive, you needn’t worry my head will swell.”
“Not what I meant at all, brat, and you know it. I just don’t like the way those chaps are looking at you, like cats about to pounce. Stop showing those dimples, blast it!”
She laughed the harder. Dear, dear Gray.
“I’m serious, Daffy, you have to be careful. You’ll be all the crack, a regular Toast. Add a dowry rich enough to set the poorest makebait up on Easy Street, and they’ll be after you like flies on honey. And those whose dibs are already in tune are looking for a pretty, well-born chit to be mother to their sons. Deuce take it, you’re the daughter of a baron, with an earl sponsoring you.”
“Do you think that’s enough to make people forget about Uncle Albert?”
The current baron had arrived that evening at Howell House, uninvited. Luckily he came before most of the invited guests, for he stood in the entryway ranting that Daphne was way too young and gauche to be presented, much less engaged. She wasn’t betrothed, not formally, but Uncle Albert never asked, too concerned with losing the interest on her dowry. He was also too castaway to put up much of a fuss when Graydon and two footmen bundled him into a hackney and sent him home before he could ruin Daphne’s big night.
Remembering how the man stank of stale whiskey and staler linen, Graydon brightened. “Right, no one would want that dirty dish in the family. I cannot imagine how he and your father came from the same parents.”
“Neither could Papa. He used to call him Awful Albie, you know, and wondered if Grandmother had played her husband false.”
“Nice talk, Daffy. Don’t let the old tabbies hear you or they’ll label you fast. You’ll never get vouchers to Almack’s.”
“Sally Jersey already promised them. So did Princess Lieven, I’ll have you know.”
“Lud, when you show up at the Marriage Mart, every basket-scrambler in Town will be sniffing at your skirts.”
“If you’re so worried about other men paying their addresses,” Daphne told him in what she thought was a reasonable tone, instead of the breathless yearning she really felt, “why don’t we announce the betrothal tonight?”
Graydon had to reach up to loosen a neckcloth that was suddenly too tight. “Tonight? No, no, there’s no reason to rush the blast—ah, blessed thing. I only meant you shouldn’t go putting on airs like every other belle who makes a splash.”
Daphne looked away and bit her lip. Graydon misinterpreted her disappointment. “I’m not saying you will, Daff, just that it’ll be hard to resist all the lures cast your way. But then that’s what this Season is for, isn’t it? To give you time to meet other chaps, to know your own mind.”
To know her own mind? She’d known what she wanted since she was six! She wasn’t about to change it now. But that was just like Gray to be so fair and considerate. Of course, the thought of her falling top over tail for another man was too silly to mention, so she just danced on happily.
Graydon wondered at her silence and the knowing smile that softly curled at the edges of her mouth. Deuce take it, when had little Daphne turned into such a charmer? And why, for heaven’s sake? He looked around to see if anyone else noticed that beguiling grin.
“Everyone who’s anyone is here tonight,” he said, caught between pride and chagrin.
“Everyone who matters to me was here for dinner.”
Since they’d dined en famille, Graydon’s chest swelled and he relaxed. She was still his sweet little Daffy. This first dance together should put his mark on her for anyone unaware of the understanding between them. A few words here and there should refresh a few other memories, so he really didn’t have to worry about the hordes of admirers waiting next to Lady Whilton hoping to sign Daphne’s dance card. He couldn’t have another set with her until the end of the evening, he knew, but would have to do his duty by every wallflower in the room, under his aunt’s gimlet stare. He kissed Daphne’s hand when he left, purposely lingering over her fingers so everyone noticed, and said, “Enjoy yourself, brat, but don’t forget about me.”
Forget about him? Forget to breathe, more like. Smiling, Daphne fingered the gold locket he’d given her. She was the luckiest girl alive! Graydon was the kindest, most handsome man in the world—and he was jealous!
Daphne was the success Graydon had predicted. Word of their almost-betrothal was circulated all over, but that simply made her more appealing to the bucks who liked a challenge, or the Tulips who liked to worship at some goddess’s shrine without paying the ultimate sacrifice, marriage. She was a safe flirtation, and she was delighted to play this new game.
There were Venetian breakfasts and balloon ascensions, rides to Richmond and ridottos. Sightseeing and being seen in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour. Musicales, masquerades, and military parades. Morning calls, afternoon at-homes, three balls a night. Sometimes Graydon escorted the ladies; more often Lord Hollister did when the entertainments were too tame for his son. Daphne understood: Gray was letting her spread her wings. She was soaring.
Then came the night at the opera when she looked across the vast concert hall to see him, her almost-fiancé, Graydon Howell, in a private box with a lady no lady would recognize. Thud. Her plummeting spirits fell so hard, she was surprised the sound didn’t drown out the tenor.
“Ignore it,” Cousin Harriet hissed in her ear. “It’s the way of the world.”
“Not my world,” Daphne protested.
“Of course not, you ninny. It’s a man’s world, and they’re all alike.” Cousin Harriet had never married, and had never met the man who could make her regret that fact. She pointed out Lord Oglethorpe with his hands all over Lady Armbruster, while Lady Oglethorpe was being ogled by Sir Gervase Ashton. Lord Armbruster, across the aisle, had his arm across some demirep’s shoulder, and on and on.
But not Gray. Those old court-cards, that reckless here-and-thereian, but not her idol, her Lochinvar, her best friend.
Her knight’s shining armor took a severe dent when Graydon nibbled on the woman’s ear, and a bad case of tarnish when one of Daphne’s new “friends’’ was quick to inform her at the first intermission that Lord Howell’s “friend” was an actress from Drury Lane. It seemed that friendship meant something different here in London.