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The Courtship Dance
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Текст книги "The Courtship Dance"

Автор книги: Candace Camp

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Praise for the novels of New York Times bestselling author


“Delightful…. Camp is firmly at home here, enlivening the romantic quest between her engaging lovers with a set of believable and colorful secondaries.”

Publishers Weekly on The Wedding Challenge

“Camp delivers another beautifully written charmer, sure to please fans of historicals, with enough modern appeal to pull in some contemporary romance readers.”

Publishers Weekly on The Marriage Wager

“Lively and energetic secondaries round out the formidable leads, and…assuring readers a surprise ending well worth waiting for.”

Publishers Weekly on The Bridal Quest

“A beautifully crafted, poignant love story.”

Romantic Times BOOKreviews on The Wedding Challenge

“The talented Camp has deftly mixed romance and intrigue to create another highly enjoyable Regency romance.”

Booklist on An Independent Woman

“A clever mystery adds intrigue to this lively and gently humorous tale, which simmers with well-handled sexual tension.”

Library Journal on A Dangerous Man

“A smart, fun-filled romp.”

—Publishers Weekly on Impetuous

The Courtship Dance

Candace Camp
























NO ONE WOULD have guessed from the way Lady Francesca 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.”

“How is the duke?” Francesca asked casually, not looking at Irene. “Have you seen him lately?”

Irene glanced at her. “A week or so ago. We went to the theater together. He and Gideon are now friends, as well as cousins. But surely you have seen Rochford, as well.”

Francesca shrugged. “Only rarely since Callie’s wedding. It was his sister who was my friend, really, not Rochford.”

The truth was that Francesca had been avoiding the duke since his sister’s wedding. The guilty knowledge of how she had wronged him had weighed on her, and every time she had run into him, she had been pierced with guilt anew. She knew that she should tell him what she had found out, that she should apologize for her actions. It was craven of her not to.

Yet she could not do it; her insides chilled whenever she thought of confessing and begging his pardon. They had at least achieved a kind of peace with each other after all these years. Not friendship, exactly, but some thing close to it. What if she told him and it brought back his anger? She deserved that anger, she supposed, but her stomach twisted at the idea. So she had taken to avoiding Rochford whenever possible, staying away from a party if she thought he would attend it, and when she did see him, taking care not to go near him. If they came face-to-face, as had happened once or twice, she had been stiff and awkward, escaping as soon as possible.

Of course, that must end if she was to have any success finding a wife for the man. She could scarcely bring him together with one of his prospective brides if she continued to avoid him.

“Callie told me that Rochford had been unfair to you,” Irene began carefully.

“Unfair?” Francesca glanced at her, startled. “No. How was he unfair?”

“I know not,” Irene admitted. “Something to do with Lord Bromwell courting Callie, I gathered.”

“Oh, that.” Francesca dismissed the idea with a flick of her hand. “The duke had reason to be concerned. Brom’s sister had certainly poisoned him against Rochford, but…” She shrugged expressively. “There was little I could do once they fell in love, in any case, and Rochford realized it afterwards. I am not so tender a female as to wither under a rebuke.”

Francesca glanced out again over the crowd, and Irene followed her gaze.

“Who do you seek?” Irene asked after a moment.

“What? Oh. No one.”

Irene’s eyebrows lifted. “You are most diligent in looking for no one.”

Francesca had difficulty dissembling with Irene. Something about Irene’s forthright manner seemed to call forth an equal candor in her. She hesitated now, then admitted, “I was hoping to see Lady Althea Robart.”

“Althea?” Irene repeated in surprise. “Whatever for?”

Francesca could not help but chuckle. “You dislike the woman?”

Irene shrugged. “Dislike is too strong a word. She simply is not company I would choose to keep. Too high in the instep for me.”

Francesca nodded. The lady did seem a bit stiff. But she was not sure that pride would necessarily be a detriment to a future duchess. “I do not know her well.”

“Nor I,” Irene agreed.

“What about Damaris Burke?”

“The daughter of Lord Burke?” Irene asked. “The diplomat?”

Francesca nodded. “Exactly.”

Irene thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I cannot say, really. I have never moved in government circles.”

“She seems quite pleasant.”

“Smooth,” Irene agreed. “What one would expect, I suppose, from a woman who holds diplomatic parties.” She glanced at her friend curiously. “Why are you asking? Do not tell me they have asked your help in seeking a husband.”

“No,” Francesca told her quickly. “They have not. I was just…considering them.”

“Ah, then it is a gentleman who has sought your help?” Irene guessed.

“Not really. I have been thinking. On my own, as it were.”

“Now you have completely aroused my curiosity. You are matchmaking for someone who has not even asked you? Is this another wager with the duke?”

Francesca blushed. “Oh. No, nothing like that. I had thought—well, there was someone I wronged once, and I had been looking to make it up to him.”

“By finding him a wife?” Irene asked. “There are a number of men who would not thank you for that favor. Who is the man?”

Francesca studied the woman next to her. Of all her friends, Irene knew the most about her. Though Francesca had never confided in her about her own past, Irene’s father had been a friend of Francesca’s late husband, so no doubt Irene suspected how little happiness Francesca had found in her marriage, and Francesca had never felt it necessary to maintain a pretense to Irene that she had missed Andrew in the five years since his death. She had never told anyone about what had happened between her and Rochford so long ago, but she suddenly found herself wanting to confide in Irene.

“Is he the reason for your melancholy?” Irene persisted.

“I think that is caused by the rapid approach of my birthday,” Francesca replied lightly, but then she sighed and said, “And a little by having hurt him when he did not deserve it. I am very sorry for what I did.”

Irene frowned. “I cannot imagine that you could have done anything so terrible.”

“I think he might differ with you,” Francesca responded. She looked into her friend’s eyes, warm with sympathy. “No one must know this—not even Lord Gideon, for he knows the man.”

Irene’s brows went up, and Francesca saw understanding dawn in the other woman’s clear golden eyes. “The duke? You are talking about Rochford?”

Francesca sighed. “I should have known that you would guess. Yes, it is Rochford, but you must promise me that you will not tell anyone.”

“Of course. I promise. Not even Gideon. But, Francesca, I don’t understand. Rochford is your friend. What great wrong could you have done him?”

Francesca hesitated. Her heart felt like lead within her chest, the long-dead sorrow hanging there still. “I broke off our engagement.”

Irene stared. “I knew there was something between you!” she exclaimed softly. “I just was not sure exactly what it had been. But I have never heard of this. I don’t understand. It must have been a huge scandal.”

“No.” Francesca shook her head. “There was no scandal. Our engagement was secret.”

“Secret? That scarcely sounds like the duke.”

“Oh, there was nothing havey-cavey about it,” Francesca assured her. “Rochford was always quite proper. He—he told me that he did not want me to be locked into an engagement during my first Season. It was the summer I made my come-out, you see. He said that I might change my mind once I had had a Season. I knew that I would not, but…well, you know the duke. He always allows for every contingency. And he thought me flighty, no doubt.”

“You were young,” Irene said.

Francesca shrugged. “Yes. But more than that—I have never been, will never be, a weighty sort.” She flashed a smile at her companion. “A ‘butterfly’ is the way he described me.”

“So you did not suit, then?”

“No, it was not that. Rochford was content enough, I think. He expressed no displeasure, at least. And I—” She paused, her eyes seeing a different time, a faint smile hovering on her lips. “I was desperately in love with him—as only an eighteen-year-old girl can be.”

Irene wrinkled her brow. “Then what happened?”

“Daphne happened,” Francesca replied grimly.

“Daphne! Lady Swithington?” Irene stared at her. “Lord Bromwell’s sister?”

Francesca nodded. “Yes. She was the source of the trouble between Rochford and Brom, the reason Rochford was so set against him becoming Callie’s husband. I was not the only one fooled by Daphne’s lies. Her brother believed, as well, that Rochford and Daphne were having an affair.”

“Oh, no! Francesca…” Irene laid her hand on her friend’s arm, sympathy warm on her face. “You thought she was his mistress?”

“Not at first. She told me straight out that she was, but I refused to believe her. I knew Rochford. Or I thought I knew him. I was aware that he did not love me as I loved him, but I believed he was too honorable a man to marry one woman and keep another as a mistress. But then, one evening—in this very house, in fact—I discovered that I was wrong. A footman brought me a note as I finished a dance. It said that if I went to the conservatory, I would find something interesting.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yes. Oh, dear. I thought the duke had sent me the note. I imagined that he had some sort of surprise for me, something romantic, perhaps. He had given me a pair of sapphire earrings the week before, saying that they were the best he could find, though they could not match the brilliance of my eyes.” She let out a sound, half laugh, half sigh. “Goodness, how long ago that seems.”

“Do you have the earrings still?” Irene asked.

“Of course. They were beautiful. I did not wear them, but I could not get rid of them. I offered them back to him afterwards, of course, but he refused, with the blackest look.”

“I presume you found him and Lady Daphne in flagrante?” Irene went on.

Francesca nodded. She remembered how she had felt, so brimming with love and eagerness, as she had hurried through the wide halls toward the conservatory. She had hoped that Rochford had found a way to steal some time alone with her. It had been even more difficult here in the city than it had been at home, surrounded as they were not only by chaperones, but all the ton, as well. Such a secluded tryst was not like him, of course; he was always supremely careful of her honor, unwilling to engage in any behavior that might damage her reputation. But perhaps, she had thought, tonight passion had carried him away, and the idea had sent a delicious shiver through her.

Francesca had not been able to quite imagine what it would be like to see Sinclair burn with passion. The duke was such a cool and elegant sort, ever unflappable in the face of the most major crisis, and correct to a fault. But there had been a time or two when he had kissed her, when his lips had pressed harder into hers and his skin had flamed in such a way that her own nerves had begun to jangle inside her, and she had wondered if something hotter, harder, stronger, boiled inside him, as well. He had always pulled away quickly, of course, but Francesca had seen a flash of something in his eyes—something hot and almost frightening, but in a somehow delicious way.

“I went into the conservatory,” Francesca recalled now. “I said his name. Sinclair was at the far end of the room, and there were some orange trees between us. He started toward me, and I saw that his ascot was in disarray, his hair mussed. I did not understand at first, but then I heard a noise, and I looked beyond him. Daphne had come out from behind the trees, as well. Her dress was unfastened down the front to the waist.”

Unconsciously, Francesca’s face hardened as she remembered the moment. Daphne’s hair had been partially undone, straggling around her face in tangled curls. Her flimsy chemise had been unlaced, and her full white breasts had spilled flagrantly out, almost completely uncovered. She had smiled at Francesca like the cat that had just gotten into the cream. And Francesca had shattered inside.

“When I saw them, I realized what a fool I had been. I had not been so deluded that I believed that Rochford was madly in love with me. He had, after all, pointed out to me all the very practical reasons why he and I were a good match. He had not spouted declarations of love or written odes to my smile or any such foolishness. But I believed that he cared for me. I had been sure that he would never harm me or treat me with anything but respect. And I had known that I would be such a good wife to him, make him so happy, that someday he would come to love me as much as I loved him.”

“Instead he had been bedding down with Lady Daphne while he was engaged to you.”

“Yes. Well, no, not really. It was all a lie. But I did not know that at the time, and I could not bear what I believed to be true. No doubt there are other women who would have ignored it, reasoning that they would still be his duchess, even if another had his heart. But I could not. I broke it off with him.”

“But in fact Daphne had arranged that little scene and sent you the note?”

“Yes. She told me at Callie’s wedding that it had all been a lie. He had not slept with her, just as he swore to me then that he had not. I did not believe him when he tried to tell me that, of course. I refused to listen to him. And afterwards, when he called on me, I would not see him.”

“And that is why you married Lord Haughston?” Irene asked shrewdly.

Francesca nodded. “He was everything that Rochford was not—full of romantic words and extravagant gestures. I was his stars, his moon, he told me.” She gave a little grimace. “His words were like balm to my wounded heart. This, I told myself, was what love was really like. So I married him. Our honeymoon was not yet over before I realized what a mistake I had made.”

“I’m so sorry.” Irene slipped her hand into Francesca’s and squeezed.

“Well, ’tis long past now,” Francesca replied, and forced a little smile.

“I can scarcely believe that Lady Daphne admitted that she had lied to you.”

“It was not done with any good will, I can assure you. I think she wanted me to realize what an idiot I had been. I am sure she hoped I would regret throwing away my chance to be a duchess.”

“And, instead, of course, what you regretted was having misjudged Rochford. The hurt you did to him.”

Francesca admitted, “His pride must have suffered greatly. He would have hated having his honor impugned, even though he knew he was not at fault.”

“Oh, Francesca…what a terrible thing. Certainly he was not the only one hurt.”

“No. But at least I was at fault. One could say I deserved what happened to me. I was the one who believed her lies. I was the one who would not listen to the truth when he told it to me. But Sinclair had done nothing wrong.”

“And you think finding the duke a wife will set this right?” Irene asked.

Francesca recognized the skepticism in her friend’s tone. “I know it cannot make up for what I did. But I fear that… What if it is because of me that Rochford has never married?” She colored a little. “I am not saying that I think his heart was forever broken. I do not rate myself so high as to think no other woman could take my place. But I fear that I led him to mistrust women so much that he has not wanted to marry. He was already used to being alone, I think, and it was easier, perhaps, for him to live that way. Sinclair came into his title at such an early age, and he had already learned that people courted his favor simply because of his title and wealth. I think that is one of the things he found appealing about marrying me—we had known each other since we were children, and I was not in awe of him. I knew him for himself, not for his title or anything else. But then, when I did not believe him, when I acted in a way that must have seemed a betrayal to him, I fear that he became even more distant and distrustful.”

“That may be, but if he does not want to marry…”

“But he must. He knows that as well as I do. He is the Duke of Rochford. He must have an heir, someone to inherit the title and estate. Rochford is far too responsible not to realize that. I will simply be helping him to do what he knows must be done.” She threw an impish grin at her companion. “And you, more than anyone else, cannot deny that I am adept at bringing to the altar even those who profess a determination not to wed.”

Irene acknowledged her words with a wry smile. “I will admit that you are expert at joining even the wariest together. However, I cannot help but wonder how the duke will take to this plan.”

“Oh, I do not intend for him to know about it,” Francesca responded blithely. “That is why you must not tell even Gideon about this. I am sure that Rochford would consider it a great interference on my part and would order me to stop it, so I have no intention of giving him that opportunity.”

Irene nodded, looking amused. “It should not be difficult to find women eager to wed the duke. He is the most eligible bachelor in the country.”

“True. I am certain that any number would wish to become his wife, but not just anyone will do. I had to find the right woman for him, which has proven to be a more difficult task than I had expected. But, then, Rochford is deserving of only an extraordinary woman, so it is no wonder that there are not many of them about.”

“Althea and Damaris are two of them, I gather. Who else have you picked out for him?”

“I have narrowed the field to three. Besides Damaris and Althea, there is only Lady Caroline Wyatt. I must talk to the three of them tonight and decide on how to throw each of them together with the duke.”

“What if he doesn’t like any of them?” Irene asked.

Francesca shrugged. “Then I shall have to find others. Someone is bound to suit him.”

“Perhaps I am being obtuse,” Irene began, “but it seems to me that the best candidate would be you.”

“Me?” Francesca cast a startled glance at her.

“Yes, you. After all, you are the one woman whom we are certain Rochford would want to marry, given that he has already asked you once. If you were to tell him you had discovered the lie, that you were sorry for not believing him…”

“No. No,” Francesca said, looking flustered. “That is impossible. I am almost thirty-four, far too long in the tooth to be a suitable bride for the duke. I shall, of course, apologize to him and confess how stupid and wrong I was. I must. But the two of us—no, that is long in the past.”


“Yes. Really. Pray do not give me that disbelieving look. I am certain of this. You know that I am done with marriage. And even if I were not, it has been too long, and too much has happened between us. He could never forgive me for breaking it off with him—not to that extent. Rochford is a very proud man. And whatever feeling he might have had for me once, by now it is long dead. It has been fifteen years, after all. I do not still love him. Even less would he harbor any love for the woman who rejected him. Why, for ages he scarcely even spoke to me. It has only been in the past few years that we have been something like friends again.”

“Well, if you are certain…?”

“I am.”

Irene shrugged. “Then what do you intend to do?”

“I…ah! There is Lady Althea.” Francesca had spotted her quarry standing beyond the dancers, chatting with another woman. “I shall start with her. I think that I may chat with her a bit, maybe plan an outing together. Then I can arrange it so that Rochford makes up one of our party.”

“If that is your plan, it seems that fortune has smiled on you,” Irene told her, nodding toward another part of the ballroom. “Rochford just walked in.”

“He did?” Francesca’s heart sped up a bit, and she turned to look in the direction her friend indicated.

It was Rochford, all right, effortlessly elegant in formal black and white, and easily the most handsome man in the room. His thick black hair was cut into an artfully casual style that many copied but few could achieve, and his lean, tall figure was perfectly suited for the close-fitting trousers and jacket that were the current fashion. There was nothing ostentatious about him—the only decoration he wore was a stickpin anchoring his cravat, the head of which was an onyx as dark as his eyes—yet no one, seeing him, would have thought him anything less than an aristocrat.

Francesca’s hand tightened on her fan as she watched him glance about the room. Every time she had seen him lately, she had felt this same roiling mixture of emotions. It had been years since she had felt this way, so jittery and filled with trepidation, yet strangely excited, as well. Daphne’s words, she reflected, had opened some sort of door on the past, letting in a whole host of feelings that she had thought time and experience had worn away.

It was entirely foolish, she realized. Knowing, as she did now, that Rochford had not been unfaithful to her made no real difference in her life. Nothing had changed because of it, and nothing would. Yet she could not deny the little spurt of joy it aroused in her whenever she saw him. He had never belonged to Daphne; his firm, well-cut mouth had not kissed her, nor whispered in her ear. His hands had not caressed her or showered her with jewels. The mental pictures that had tortured her fifteen years ago had been entirely false, and she could not help but be glad of it.

Francesca turned away, suddenly busy with her gloves and fan, smoothing down the front of her skirt. “I must tell him,” she said softly.

She knew that she could not be at ease around him again until she had revealed what she had learned and apologized for not trusting or believing him. And, clearly, she could not match him with a wife if she could not even be around him without going into a fit of nerves. She must tell him…but how?

“I think that you are about to get your chance,” Irene told her dryly.

“What?” Francesca looked up.

And there, climbing the stairs toward them, was the Duke of Rochford.

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