Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende
Candace Camp is a New York Times bestselling author of over sixty novels of contemporary and historical romance. She grew up in Texas in a newspaper family, which explains her love of writing, but she earned a law degree and practiced law before making the decision to write full-time. She has received several writing awards, including the RT Book Reviews Lifetime Achievement Award for Western Romances. Visit her at www.candace-camp.com.
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No one would have guessed from the way Lady Fran-cesca Haughston moved through the Whittington ballroom that she was making the opening moves of her campaign. She strolled along in her usual manner, pausing to compliment a dress here or flirt with one of her many admirers there. She smiled and talked and plied her fan deftly, a vision in ice-blue silk, her blond hair falling in a cascade of curls from an upswept knot. But all the while, her dark blue eyes were looking for her prey.
It had been almost a month since she had vowed to herself to find a wife for the Duke of Rochford, and tonight she intended to set her plan in motion. She had made all her preparations. She had studied the young unmarried women of the ton, and through careful research and observation, she had managed to whittle the number down to just three whom she felt suitable for Sinclair.
All three of the young ladies would be here this evening, she was certain. The Whittington ball was one of the highlights of the Season, and, short of dire illness, any marriageable young lady would attend. Moreover, the odds were that the duke would be there, as well, which meant that Francesca could set her scheme in motion. It was time she began, she knew—past time. She had not really needed three weeks to sort out the possible brides for Rochford. There was only a rather small number of girls who could qualify to become his duchess.
But for some reason, ever since Callie's wedding, Francesca had been beset by ennui, curiously reluctant to pay calls or attend parties or the theater. Even her good friend Sir Lucien had commented on her sudden preference for staying at home. She was not sure of the reason for it; everything just suddenly seemed dull and scarcely worth the effort. She had felt, in fact, a trifle blue-deviled—a result, she had decided, of the fact that Callie, who had been living with Francesca while they sorted out a husband for her, was now married and gone. Without Callie's cheerful voice and fetching smile, Francesca's house was too empty.
Still, she reminded herself, she had vowed to make up for the wrong she had done to Callie's brother, Sinclair, fifteen long years ago. It was impossible to right matters, of course, but she could at least do the duke the favor of finding him a suitable bride. It was, after all, the thing at which she was most skilled. So she had come to this party tonight determined to begin the long dance of courtship on his behalf.
She strolled along the perimeter of the grand ballroom, a huge affair painted all in white and gold, floored with oak planks the color of honey, and lit by three glittering cascades of crystal chandeliers. Several gold stands of thick white beeswax candles provided more light, as did the gold-and-white sconces along the walls. All this brilliance was softened by the huge bouquets of crimson roses and peonies standing in vases against the walls, and twining in garlands up the banister of the magnificent staircase to the second floor. It was an elegant room, worthy of a palace, and it was rumored that only the formal ballroom made Lady Whittington willing to remain in this enormous and antiquated old mansion situated unfashionably outside Mayfair.
Francesca threaded through the crowd to the staircase, intending to use the vantage point of the second-floor railing to locate the young women she was seeking in the massive ballroom below. It was fitting, she thought, as she began to climb the curving stairs, that she should begin her campaign at the Whittingtons' ball. It had been here, after all, that she had ended things with the Duke of Rochford fifteen years ago. It had been here that her world had come crashing down.
The flowers had all been white that night, she remembered, masses of roses, peonies, camellias and sweet-scented gardenias, accented by glossy greenery trailing from the high vases. It had been a night of heady triumph for Francesca—she had made her debut only weeks before, and she was the undisputed Beauty of the Season. Men had flocked around her, flirting and begging for a dance, making extravagant declarations of love and paying flowery compliments. And all the while she had hugged her secret to herself, giddy with love and excitement—until the footman had slipped a note into her hand.
Now Francesca reached the second floor and took her place at the railing, where she could gaze down at the swirling dancers below. Things were much the same, she thought, as they had been that night so long ago. The dresses had been different, of course, the colors of the walls and the decorations changed. But the glamour, the excitement, the hopes and intrigues, had not altered. Francesca gazed out at the crowd without really seeing them, remembering instead the past.
"Is the party so grim?" a light, familiar voice said at her side.
Francesca turned and smiled at the blond woman. "Irene. How good to see you."
Lady Irene Radbourne was a striking woman with thick, curling blond hair and unusual golden eyes. At twenty-seven years old, she had been a spinster—and determined to remain one—until last autumn, when Francesca, searching for a suitable spouse for the Earl of Radbourne, had realized that Irene was the perfect match for him. The two women had spent their lives in much the same circle, so she had known the blunt, opinionated Lady Irene for years, but the two of them had not been friends until they had spent two weeks together at the Radbourne estate as Francesca sought to match the rough Lord Gideon to a well-bred wife. Now Francesca counted Irene as one of her closest friends.
Irene looked out over the multicolored crowd of dancers. "Is the new crop of marriageable young ladies so dismal?"
Francesca shrugged. Though she and Irene had maintained a genteel silence regarding the matter, Francesca suspected Irene had guessed that her matchmaking efforts were more a question of survival than amusement.
"Indeed, I have not really given them much attention. I have been quite lazy since Callie's wedding, I fear."
Irene regarded her shrewdly. "You are distressed, are you not? Is there aught that I can do?"
Francesca shook her head. "'Tis nothing, really. I am just remembering…a time long past. Another party here." She forced a smile, the charming dimple in her cheek appearing. "Where is Lord Gideon?"
In the six months the couple had been married, it was rare to see Irene without Gideon by her side. The pair had suited each other even better than Francesca had guessed; it seemed as if their love grew with each passing day.
Irene let out a little giggle. "He was waylaid by his great-aunt as we came in."
"Lady Odelia?" Francesca asked, appalled. "Good Gad, is she here?" She glanced around apprehensively.
"We are safe here," Irene assured her. "I do not think she will climb the stairs. That is why I fled to the balcony as soon as I stepped out of the cloakroom and saw that she had cornered Gideon."
"And left him there?" Francesca asked, chuckling. "For shame, Lady Radbourne. What about your vows?"
"My wedding vows made no mention of Great-Aunt Odelia, I assure you," Irene retorted, grinning. "I did feel a twinge of guilt, but I reminded myself that Gideon is a strong man, feared by many."
"Even the bravest quail before Lady Odelia, however. I remember once when Rochford himself sneaked out the back door and went 'round to the stables when he saw her carriage out front, leaving my mother and me with his grandmother to face her."
Irene let out a burst of laughter. "I should like to have seen that. I shall have to tease him about that the next time we meet."