She Challenged His Pride
Lady Amelia Bertram may have a reputation as the most brazen beauty of the ton, but she shocks even herself when she accidently—and loudly—derides one of society’s most eligible bachelors in the middle of a crowded ballroom. The timing of her faux pas couldn’t be worse, for her father is seeking someone to take her off his hands that very night…
He Challenged Her Willpower
But when Thomas Armstrong overhears the so-called “Lady” Amelia slandering his sexual prowess in public, he cannot help but accept the dare implicit in her words. To her father’s great delight, he offers to take her to his secluded country estate—properly chaperoned, of course—to teach the girl a lesson in ladylike behavior…
In the following scene, Amelia, who has already collided, quite literally, with Thomas earlier that day, is reminded once again that it appears she is the only person who doesn’t hold him in high esteem. Her objection of him, however, has her unknowingly throwing down the proverbial gauntlet.
Amelia brought her flowered, silk fan up to her face and began a gentle flutter. A sweep of her gaze revealed an elaborately decorated ballroom enclosed in a glass dome. Treated in blue and white, it had two massive crystal chandeliers soaring high above a crowd at least five hundred strong.
She searched the sea of faces at Lady Stanton’s ball, hoping to spy Miss Crawford returning with her refreshment. Of the many she viewed, her chaperone wasn’t among them.
After her former chaperone had abruptly left her post, her father had hired Miss Melinda Crawford as her eminently qualified replacement. This had been all well and good until Amelia discovered the woman regularly apprised her father of her every move like a brigadier reported troop field positions to his generals. If the woman had not slept like night fell but once a year, Amelia would never have managed her last—subsequently doomed—elopement attempt with Lord Clayborough.
But even with the objectionable woman in tow, the opportunity to attend the evening fête had been heaven-sent; one Amelia had pounced upon to fend off the sheer boredom of her own company. After spending the last three days staring at four pink and gray walls when the only books left unread were the dry offerings from various Greek philosophers, spending an evening out had been a rainbow cresting the horizon following forty days and nights of nothing but unremitting rain.
Several young gentlemen, all of them in their evening white tie and tails, lingered close, their regard intent upon her. Amelia quickly yanked her gaze, uneasy with the heat in their eyes.
The high feminine voice came from behind her, sounding tentative, almost unsure. Amelia turned in its direction and spotted Miss Dawn Hawkins only feet away near the back wall beside two other ladies whose faces she vaguely recognized but names she could not recall—if in fact she’d ever had knowledge of them.
Miss Hawkins was a pleasant miss, and much more timid than the standard fare of maidens on the husband hunt. As it appeared Miss Crawford had had to travel to the opposite end of the Continent to fetch the refreshments, she could stand some tame female conversation. It would certainly be more welcome than being measured and weighed by the young bucks entering the marriage mart mentally calculating her worth.
“Good evening, Miss Hawkins,” Amelia said, reaching her side in a few short steps.
“Oh, please, Miss Hawkins is so formal for people I consider my friends. Do call me Dawn,” she said casting a brief gaze downward.
Amelia smiled. Dawn really was so unaffected. A refreshing change from forced smiles and feigned interest into the status of one’s well-being. “Then you can hardly address me as Lady Amelia.”
Dawn’s countenance fairly glowed at the invitation. Quickly, she turned and introduced Amelia to the two ladies at her side: Miss Catherine Ashford and Lady Jane Fordham.
“We were just conversing about the men we most want to ask us for a dance. Not that any gentlemen will, mind you,” Dawn added, her smile and tone self-deprecating.
Amelia’s heart gave a forlorn beat at the commiserative look the three women shared at the comment; that silent bit of communication that bespoke a secure and trusting bond. No one had ever looked at her in that manner.
Shrugging off her momentary pang, Amelia had to agree with Dawn as much as she wished it wasn’t so. She could not remember a single instance when she’d seen the poor girl grace the dance floor. Dawn was plump, moderately plain in the face with a diminutive stature, and had been the only female to befriend her since their introduction earlier that spring.
Her friends also appeared to be suffering a similar fate, perched along the periphery as if the yellow walls they propped up lacked beam support, and the threat of falling hung ominous in the air. The poor women undoubtedly had little in terms of a dowry; the death of any marriage-minded lady not blessed with a comely visage or an enviable figure.
“Naturally, you have no such problems or worries,” Dawn continued in her high-pitched little girl voice. Miss Ashford and Lady Jane added their staunch agreement with emphatic nods.
“I do not dance much at these affairs either,” Amelia said, managing an expression she believed must have been something between a grimace and a smile. Most thought that with her looks and dowry she never lacked for male attention. Unfortunately, the majority of the gentlemen who sought her hand in marriage were more suitable to fill the role of her father’s son-in-law than that of her husband.
“But that is because you do not care to, not because you lack the opportunity to do so.” Dawn gazed up at her with a mixture of envy and admiration.
“Do tell, which of the esteemed gentlemen in attendance tonight had you hoped would beg a dance?” Amelia forced a light laugh, while shifting uncomfortably under the younger woman’s regard.
Miss Ashford shot a quick glance about the noisy room teeming with highbrow aristocrats, before lifting a gloved hand to her mouth and leaning in. “I don’t believe he is here at the present time, at least we have not seen him enter, but we have all agreed that Lord Armstrong would be our first choice.”
Amelia forced herself not to roll her eyes, trying to ignore the disturbing quickening of her pulse as a too vivid image of him came to mind. “Please tell me you have more sense than to be charmed by golden locks and dimpled cheeks?” Amelia raised a brow, endeavoring to look properly chastising. A look her father swore she’d perfected at the knee of her departed grandmother, who had turned expressing displeasure into an art form.
All three ladies exchanged looks of surprise, undoubtedly wondering what umbrage she could have with the young lord frequently likened to the Greek god Apollo. Amelia thought Eros more apropos with rumors of all those women.
“Are you speaking of Lord Armstrong?” Dawn whispered the man’s name with the same reverence most of the gentry and the aristocracy saved for royalty.
Amelia bit back a pained smile. “The very one and the same.”
“Why, I think he is utterly charming,” Miss Ashford said, her angular features softening, her cheeks becoming flushed as if the mere thought of the man turned her insides to mush.
“The man’s a rake. Would you have a man who believes it is his duty to bed every woman in Town? I find him to lack any form of subtlety and his transparency particularly vulgar.” Amelia recalled with full clarity, the smile he’d bestowed upon her during their initial introduction. A smile meant to charm, to mesmerize. Her pulse thrummed. Yes indeed, vulgarly transparent.
Dawn pressed two white gloved fingers delicately to her lips, and Lady Jane and Miss Ashford gaped.
“Surely you jest?” Lady Jane whispered on a sharp inhalation.
Really, would she jest about something of this nature? The man was a rake. So perhaps he did not think it was his duty to bed every woman in Town, but who would really quibble over the two dozen or so she had missed in her claim. “You ladies are much too sweet to be taken in by that scalawag.” Which was the truth. He was all that and more.
“Are you much acquainted with the viscount?” Dawn asked, her eyes wide and curious.
“Unfortunately, my father and he are well acquainted, and I have been forced to suffer the man’s presence—though thankfully only briefly—on several different occasions.” Yesterday’s encounter had exceeded the usual scope of their verbal exchange. She could only pray future occurrences proved few and far between.
“How can you fault a gentleman who treats Mr. Foxworth’s sister with that kind of magnanimity? Why, ever since Mr. Fox—hmm, I suppose that would be Officer Foxworth now. Well, ever since he joined the Navy, it is Lord Armstrong who has been escorting her about Town to social events. And if she attends a ball she is not relegated to the wall like some.” Miss Ashford paused to share another look of lament with Dawn and Lady Jane. “I think his loyalty to his friend is commendable. Truth to tell, if not for him, Miss Foxworth would otherwise be wasting away the Seasons in some town lacking proper roads and transportation.”
Amelia refused to mollify her opinion in the light of his altruism toward Miss Foxworth or his apparent dedication to his friend. However, the circumstances did explain why the thirty-one year old spinster had one of the most eligible bachelors squiring her about. Their association giving hope to all whey-faced ladies whose petals drooped on aging stems that their princes were not far behind.
“The poor woman is clearly smitten. That is as obvious as the nose on my face.” On the two occasions Amelia had seen the two together, Miss Foxworth had stared up at him with star-struck eyes, a splotch of pink lending color to her waxen complexion. If ever she’d witnessed a woman in the grip of lovesick infatuation, Camille Foxworth had surely been her.
“Well, smitten or not, I think it is kind of him to treat her so.”
Apparently, Miss Foxworth wasn’t the only one smitten, for Miss Ashford defended him with the zeal of a court barrister endeavoring to sway the jury to spare his client’s neck.
“Yes,” chimed in Lady Jane, “the man could have his pick of the most sought after ladies of the ton.” She then blanched and shot a look of trepidation at Amelia. “Or at least the majority of them,” she corrected.
In the strictest definition, that relatively small, revered group did include her. But her offers had tapered since her first Season, when she’d accumulated twenty proposals of marriage. This Season would conclude with no more than five, all from gentlemen quite new to the marriage market.
Since Lady Victoria Spencer, the youngest daughter of the Marquess of Cornwall, had scandalized the ton by marrying Sir George Clifton, Amelia had gained the dubious honor of being dubbed the new ice maiden. Though, should they ever discover of her association with Mr. Cromwell and Lord Clayborough, she’d go from icicle to strumpet faster than a pickpocket in St. Giles could relieve a nob of his valuables.
“And not only is he kind,” Dawn said in her girlish titter, continuing in his relentless praise, “but he is rumored to be an extraordinary lover.”
Amelia’s brows climbed to hitherto unscaled heights as she eyed the furiously blushing blonde. And just when she’d equated Dawn Hawkins with a wilting violet. Proper young ladies did not lend themselves to such discourse. She certainly could, but then she’d never endeavored to fit in with the ladies of the peerage, many of whom were just sheep in a herd where titles, connections, and wealth led with uncompromising rigor.
“Posh, surely a rumor Lord Armstrong himself helped to circulate.”
Once again, three pairs of eyes, all in varying shades of brown, widened and turned on her as if she had just taken over the pulpit and declared to every Sunday worshipper supplicant in prayer that God was just a myth. Blasphemous!
“Men tend to think very well of themselves when it comes to such matters. I am quite certain one is no more proficient than the other, though invariably it’s the handsome ones who like to boast the advantage.” And Amelia imagined that the viscount was just such a man.
The women stood mute. Each appeared to be digesting what they’d just heard. Amelia wasn’t a stranger to certain male and female intimacies. How could she forget the rather wet kiss Lord Finley had pressed upon her in the garden at the Walsh ball. He had assumed that with a face that could have coined the phrase beautiful as sin, she would welcome his advances. His shins had paid dearly for his presumption. Good looks did not necessarily equate to skillfulness as a lover. They might one day discover those truths and be much wiser for it, though she was certain some poor gentleman would topple from his pedestal in the process.
“Then why do so many women eagerly follow him to his bed?” Lady Jane’s face climbed three shades of red, the question emerging hushed in a mixture of reticence and urgent curiosity.
At that moment, the music crested as the piano, violin, coronet and cello reached a melodious crescendo. With her recent encounter with the man fueling her renewed dislike, Amelia did not allow the intrusion of the noise to cause her to pause for even an instant. Instead, she raised her voice to be heard above the final notes.
“The same reason you would gladly accept his request for a dance. Women are easily charmed by his dimples and handsome visage. Moreover, the man is a viscount and said to be one of the richest peers in all of England. On paper, he is the ideal catch. In reality, the man is no more than a rake. Lord Armstrong is the type of man who is too self-involved to care about the pleasure of others—in any regard. I would stake my dowry he does not come remotely close to his rumored sexual prowess.”
The three ladies stared at her wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Their gazes shifted to the area beyond her bare shoulder just as a cacophony of female gasps and low baritone snickers punctured the silence. A silence that had not existed only moments before. Amelia spun quickly on the heel of her patent leather shoe to confront a scene only fit for some ghastly tableau.
Coiffed matrons and properly turned out debutantes wore scandalized looks of disbelief. Gentlemen hid their smiles behind pristine white gloved hands. Not one note of music rent the air to soften words ripe for public reproach.
Dear Lord, when had the music stopped? Her gaze darted about frantically. And when had the guests surrounding her become mutes? She could not even sigh in relief when the harmonious melody of a waltz rang out like a rescuing cavalry arriving fifteen minutes too late to stop the slaughter. Amelia could not recall the last time she’d felt this thoroughly exposed. So stricken and besieged. So completely mortified.
Then to punctuate the totality of her humiliation, the crowd before her parted as if Moses himself brought his staff down upon the waters of the Red Sea. Hushed tones could barely contain their glee. And condemnation. Through a sea of bejeweled gowns and black waistcoats strode the tall, commanding form of none other than the man whose prowess she’d just eviscerated in the full hearing of the ton.