Love's Grace series, Book 3
November 25, 2014
Grand Central Publishing
A Hidden Beauty
Lucinda Cardington doesn't care that she is close to being "on the shelf." She has more serious pursuits in mind and is perfectly content to leave dreams of romance to silly young ladies like her sister. Yet when her sister places herself in a compromising situation with London's most scandalous bachelor, the entire family's reputation comes perilously close to ruin. Suddenly Lucinda is in the limelight . . . and in need of a husband.
James Simpson's rakish ways have finally caught up with him. Snared in a scandal that for once is not his doing, he is forced to do the honorable thing and offer marriage to the lady. But her father won't agree to a dowry unless James can also find a suitable husband for the lady's elder sister-quiet, reserved Lucinda Cardington. As James gets to know the vibrant, charming, and passionate woman behind Lucinda's shy exterior, he comes to the distressing realization that he doesn't want her in anyone's arms but his own…
Excerpt from A Bride for the Season
James Simpson sent a smile and a wink across the ballroom to Miss Emily Cardington and was pleased, as he always was, to see her reaction.
Emily blushed prettily and leaned in to whisper something to her friend. She had been watching the dancing with a little cluster of debutantes who were almost as charming as she was. There was a lot to be said for ladies whose primary aim was to look pretty, please the gentlemen, and have a good time while they were about it. James had adored the company of such women for years, and he had yet to tire of it. Plenty had fished for a marriage proposal, too, but their hints had been easy enough to sidestep.
Emily detached herself from the females giggling behind their fans and began to thread her way through the crowd. She paused to smile and return greetings from those she passed, so that her movement in his direction would not be noticeable to a casual onlooker. What a delight she was. She was beautiful and vivacious, but she also knew how to be discreet when necessary. Tonight, under the eagle eyes of her elder sister and her parents, who disapproved of James on the somewhat plausible grounds that he was an untrustworthy rogue, was just such a time.
James remained by the open French doors, leaning casually against the wall as he watched Emily’s approach. From this vantage point he had a good view of the ballroom. It was crowded tonight. A mild evening after scorching-hot weather had lured many people out tonight. No doubt it would have been heavily attended anyway—invitations to Lord and Lady Trefethen’s balls were always highly sought after.
James’s gaze traveled across the glittering scene, taking in the dancers, the wallflowers, the matrons chatting by the punch table, and one young couple who were quietly slipping behind a large potted palm for a private tête-à-tête. He loved these large affairs. There must be two hundred people in the room, yet it was not simply one block of people. Groups large and small collected, broke up, and then re-formed, each taking a different dynamic from the people who were in it. For James it was a continual feast. He always craved something new, and tonight was no exception.
As he finished his survey of the ballroom, James was happy to see that Lord Cardington, Emily’s father, was nowhere in sight. No doubt he’d retreated to the large library to enjoy a cigar and brandy with the other old men who had no penchant for dancing. Lady Cardington was hard to miss, though. Her corpulent frame was perched precariously on one of the chairs near a food table, and she was deep in conversation with the tall and shrill Mrs. Paddington. Clearly Lady Cardington was not concerning herself at the moment with the whereabouts of her youngest daughter.
Oddly enough, the only person he could not account for was Emily’s sister. Lucinda tended to stick to the edges of a crowded ballroom, and James usually had no trouble locating her. She was not among the dancers, but that was no surprise. Lucinda rarely danced, which was good news for the men whose toes she invariably trod on. But neither was she to be seen with the other spinsters-in-training who were whispering together along the far wall. Perhaps she had joined her father and the other ancients in the library. Lucinda was always more comfortable conversing with gloomy old men about science and politics than in partaking of any real fun.
Emily had made it halfway across the room by now, and she sent James a quick, apologetic smile as she was intercepted by Lady Trefethen’s nephew, a tall, lanky fellow who had spent much of the season trying to win Emily’s favor. Poor fellow never stood a chance. Emily was this season’s bon-bon, and she could have her pick of the men. Naturally, she had made James her favorite. She was his favorite too, for the moment. He enjoyed these innocent flirtations with debutantes, although he found greater satisfaction in very different dalliances with far less innocent ladies—and far from well-lit ballrooms.
He knew it would not take long for Emily to politely separate herself from Lady Trefethen’s nephew, and then it would be a matter of mere moments before she reached James. So he stepped out the French doors and walked toward the balcony railing in order to wait for her, and to gauge whether his favorite seat in the arbor—the one perfect for admiring the moonlight with a willing companion—was available. What he saw instead as he looked out over the garden surprised him. A lady was walking along one of the well-manicured paths. Her face was shrouded by shadows, but she moved with a furtive air, as though she’d been doing something naughty and was afraid of being caught. James leaned on the railing, admiring her slender figure as she approached the house, trying to figure out who she was. It wasn’t until she’d reached the steps leading up to the balcony that James realized with great astonishment that the woman was Lucinda Cardington.
On a night like this, the garden was the perfect place for a few stolen kisses—exactly what James had planned for himself and Emily. James tried to picture Lucinda in a lover’s embrace, but gave it up instantly. It was impossible even to imagine, and in any case she was clearly alone. Why then, was she here? What could possibly lead her away from the ball and into the lonely shadows? Suddenly, James had an irresistible urge to know.
He noticed she kept her hands behind her, as if she was hiding something. When she reached the top of the steps, she pulled up short when she saw James. Even in the flickering light of the torches he could see a furious blush begin to spread across her cheeks. When she turned beet-red like that it was impossible to miss.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, as though James were the one being caught doing something untoward, and not her.
He looked at her askance. “It is I who should be asking that question. Why are you sneaking about in the dark?”
She drew herself up. “I am not sneaking about. I merely went for a walk. It’s terribly hot inside and I needed some fresh air.”
“You went out to the garden alone?” James did not bother to hide his disbelief.
“Of course,” she replied defensively. “What did you think?”
“A moonlit summer night is much more enjoyable with company.” He was amused to see her eyes widen and her blush spread down her neck—which, he suddenly noticed, was not slender in a gangly way but was pleasingly delicate. “Come, now,” he chided. “I know you’re hiding something.”
He took a wide sidestep in an attempt to see what was behind her. She moved too, trying to keep her back hidden, but James was too quick for her. She was holding a book, which he deftly plucked out of her hands.
“Mr. Simpson!” Lucinda cried out, affronted.
James tilted the spine toward the light in order to see the title. “Elemental Photographic Methods,” he read aloud. “Did you tiptoe out to the garden to read this?” He was torn between confusion at her actions and admiration at the book’s subject matter. Photography had become a passion for him.
She snatched the book back. Her hands were icy cold as they brushed his, sending a small wave of shock through him. She hugged it close, sending a cautious glance around to be sure no one was watching. As though it were illegal to be found at a dance with a book in one’s hands. In her case, it probably was. Given the way Lady Cardington was pushing to get her eldest daughter married, she’d be livid if she knew Lucinda was reading in a hidden corner instead of luring some gentleman into the velvet noose. “You can’t have been able to read very well,” he observed. “That quarter moon isn’t providing much light.”
She was still blushing, which, against the backdrop of her defiant look, made an arresting picture. “There is a small lamp near the rear of the garden, by the back gate. I came out here because I did not want my father to see me. He does not believe photography is a suitable pastime for a young lady.”
“Really? Why not?” He took a step closer to her as he spoke, closing the distance between them to mere inches. Something about her crisp starchiness always amused him, and he enjoyed seeing her squirm.
“The dangerous chemicals, the darkroom…” Her voice trailed off.
She tried to take a step back, but James had her effectively pinned against the railing. Instinctively he took a quiet inhaling breath, for he was always curious to discover the scents used by the ladies he encountered. Lucinda seemed to favor almond and lilac—an agreeable combination. “Ah yes, the darkroom,” he said, bemused. “I can see why he’d object to that. Heaven forbid you find yourself alone, in the dark, with a man.”