He did not believe in love at first sight. Yet his heart was hammering in his chest as if he might be suffering some sort of attack. No, it couldn’t be. He was a numbers man, not into theatrics, not into emotions or personal dramas, or even women, really. Oh, he’d had his fair share of rolls in the hay, and he’d even courted a few when he was younger, but the idea of marriage had always been repugnant to him, despite the ongoing pressure from his mother to produce an heir.
But now, staring at the animated face of Miss Kitty Stanley, he was undeniably changed.
He’d succumbed to one of the Viscount Maurice Stanley’s numerous invitations to visit his London apartment. Though they knew each other from Parliament, they’d developed their friendship at Spencer’s, the gentleman’s club on St. James Street that catered to London’s rich and famous, where they often sat next to one another at the gambling tables. Maurice Stanley had a gambling problem. Perhaps they both did, because surely Harry’s interest in gambling was more than a passing fancy, it was a need—it fed him. Numbers were his best escape. But he didn’t consider his habit a problem because while Stanley always lost at the tables, he always won.
Which is why the Viscount Stanley had taken a great fancy to Harry—he wanted to change his luck. They were sitting in his den, drinking brandy and discussing numbers, when the door burst open and Harry’s entire world tilted so fully on its axis, that he imagined he might fall right off the settee and onto the Viscount’s worn Persian rug.
“Maury, guess what just—Oh!”
The most beautiful young lady he’d ever seen had burst into the room, waving what looked like an invitation. She had thick, mahogany hair, high cheekbones, and full, pouting lips the color of shiny red plums. It was easy to deduce that she was Maury’s younger sister, judging from the resemblance, but every way he was average, she was spectacular.
“Forgive me, I didn’t realize you had a guest,” she said, dropping a curtsy and flashing a brilliant smile at Harry. His heart stopped in his chest at the dazzling perfection of it—one deep dimple gave her an asymmetrical look that only enhanced her beauty. Her eyes danced with a spirit that could hardly be contained in her small frame.
He wanted to stay in the halo of that smile for the rest of his life.
Only when she looked back to her brother could he breathe again, and make his body move to rise from the settee.
“Yes, Kitty, there’s a reason why most people knock before they enter. I am conducting serious gentlemanly business here,” her brother drawled, swirling his brandy in its glass.
Once again the brilliant gaze turned upon him. Green eyes, with flecks of gray and yellow. Thick, dark lashes that curled alluringly at the tips. “This is where I would roll my eyes if you weren’t present,” she said to him in a conspiratorial tone.
The hairs stood up on his arms to be spoken to as if he were an intimate friend and not a perfect stranger. He ought to think it quite bold, perhaps even cheeky, but he didn’t. He found it utterly charming. He laughed at her joke, stepping forward to make her acquaintance. “Harry Westerfield,” he said with a small bow.
She curtsied. “Lord Westerfield, I’ve heard so much about you. What a pleasure to meet you in person.”
“My sister,” Stanley drawled.
“Miss Stanley. The pleasure is all mine.” He took the hand she offered, her dainty, un-gloved fingers feeling so small in his large hand. “Is that an invitation?” he queried, indicating the card in her other hand.
“Oh! Yes. Lady Maybury is having a ball, and I came to beg Maury to take me.” She turned big puppy eyes on her brother. “Will you? Please, Maury?”
Stanley’s lips curled in a fond, but nonchalant smile. He guessed it was a lazy guardianship Stanley kept of his sister, which accounted for her lack of restraint that Harry found so refreshing.
Stanley raised his brows at Harry. “You wouldn’t believe how time-consuming and expensive it is to have a sister who is ‘out’—the gowns, the balls, the evening promenade in Hyde Park.”
Harry considered whether Miss Stanley had any idea of the debt her brother had accumulated. If he had truly outfitted her in new gowns for the season, it had been on credit. The Viscount’s debts at Spencer’s alone were in excess of 20,000 pounds.
“I’d be rolling my eyes once more,” Miss Stanley confided again, giving him a wink. So quirky was her personality, it was almost as if the manners of a common fishwife had been overlaid with a ladylike accent, language, and fashionable beauty. “What say you, Maury? Please? I’ve been waiting for an invitation to Lady Maybury’s ball all season! You remember last year’s? It gave us fodder for gossip all season!”
How could anyone deny such a creature anything? “Yes, I received an invite today as well. Let’s attend it, Stanley.”
The Viscount shot him a shocked look. Harry never attended balls or any other social function. Meeting available young ladies was not part of his habit, nor did he show any desire to socialize with the rest of the ton.
Stanley gave a careless shrug. “Certainly. Send our intentions to attend,” he told his sister.
Harry braced himself this time for the smile and it lit up the room as he’d remembered. She bobbed a curtsy to both of them. “Thank you, Maury. A pleasure to meet you, Lord Westerfield.”
“Indeed,” was all he could manage before she left the room.
And that was when he’d decided.
He would not stop until Kitty Stanley belonged to him.
* * *
She’d been looking forward to the Maybury ball since the moment she’d departed the event the year before. It provided all the entertainment she adored—important men and preening ladies—all in one place where she could observe their interactions like a scientist studies his favorite species.
All of the ton attended, milling about in the latest finery and jewels. The eligible young ladies had donned their finest gowns and there was a titillation in the air that fed Kitty’s sense of adventure. Her burnt-orange dress was in the latest fashion, with a revealing neckline open to her shoulders, and plumes of dark red satin ribbons adorning the poufy sleeves. A matching ribbon cut across her waist at a V and fell down the front of her skirts. She had a new corset with the shoulder straps removed to both lift her breasts and cinch her waist.
And yet all her efforts to impress were not to snare a husband. For her, the fascination was more in the artistry—like choosing a gown in too bold a color, but still absolutely flattering to her. Or using observation to deduce the desires and motivation of each person at the ball. She was a wallflower of sorts, but it was more by her own choosing.
Lord Westerfield’s attendance came as a surprise not only to her, but to most of the gathering. As far as she knew, he had not attended a society function in years. She observed his arrival with amusement, watching the twitter of excitement run through the unattached young ladies. Lord Westerfield’s name had been scratched from most lists of eligible men simply because he was impossible to meet. Yet here he was—the prize worth attracting—handsome, titled, and one of the wealthiest men in the peerage, primarily due to speculative investments and gambling. He was older, but not too old—perhaps in his mid-thirties, and she knew from Maury he was nothing short of brilliant when it came to numbers.
It took him a long time to make his way into the hall—he was waylaid by several mothers eager to introduce their daughters, then by a group of young gentlemen who looked anxious to impress him as well. He did not appear interested by any of it. He did not smile, nor did he speak much. In fact, he was looking around the ballroom in a bored sort of manner. His eye swept over her and she inadvertently locked gazes with him, caught in her observation. Sucking in her breath, she willed herself to look away, but couldn’t. She remained frozen, disbelieving, as he spoke to the men near him and began to move toward her, eyes still holding her own.
With effort, she looked away, heat creeping up her neck, which irritated her. It was not like her to become unnerved at a social function.
“Miss Stanley.” His voice had a rich, deep resonance that reverberated through her entire body, right down to her slippers.
“Lord Westerfield,” she said, the words tumbling out too quickly as she curtsied.
“Would you care to dance?”
It took her a full beat to recover from shock and place her gloved hand in his outstretched palm.
“Lord Westerfield,” she managed as he led her to the dance floor. “You’ve taken me by surprise.”
“You have ruined my entertainment.”
He gave her a quizzical look as he guided her gracefully into the dance.
“I was planning to spend the next hour observing the way the crowd fawned over you, but you caught me out. Now it seems I am to be observed fawning over the sought-after Lord Westerfield.”
She was pleased to see the expressionless mask break and his lips twist into a smile. “Are you?”
“Fawning? Clearly. Can you not tell? Should I bat my eyelashes a bit more? It’s a shame my mother is dead, else I could send her over posthaste to inquire after yours. How is your mother, by the way?”
Westerfield was chuckling, another unexpected reaction. Most gentlemen found her pert chatter to be gauche. Though she had been raised with proper manners, she often abandoned them in favor of producing shock. She enjoyed watching the effect of her bluntness on a conversation—the way people squirmed when she spoke some truth that should not be spoken.
“Are you sure I have a mother?”
“Oh, yes, quite. I know all your pertinent details—single, handsome, titled, wealthy. Progressive with politics, tends to vote reformist, though you rarely, if ever, speak out in Parliament. I know your mother, the dowager countess, currently resides in Stanbrook, at your country estate, but when she is in London, she vociferously laments your long delay in marrying—as do all the young ladies.”
“What else?” he prompted.
“You’re hard to meet—which distresses the ladies—and you’re even harder to know. You offer little to a conversation, particularly in a group setting, but you’re said to have one of the best minds in all of England, especially in mathematics and economics. You’ve made several investments that have profited nearly ten times the return.”
Westerfield was staring at her as if fascinated. She was so unused to such a reaction she almost lost her stride.
“Any more?” he asked softly, eyes intent on her face.
She cocked her head, moving in rhythm with him, noting the grace and athleticism to his movement, an ease that belied his large frame.
“You like to gamble and you always win. Maury thinks you have one of those trick memories so you can count every card.”
“Your brother discusses my gambling habits with you?” He looked displeased, which was the sort of fuel she was more familiar with igniting.
Satisfied, she grinned and leaned her head closer to his. “You’d be surprised all the secrets I know about you, my lord.”
But rather than take her bait, he grinned. “I know a bluff when I hear one, Miss Stanley.”
Dear God, Lord Westerfield was charming.
She stared at the angular planes of his face—the patrician nose, iron jaw, sharp, intelligent eyes. Without the smile, his visage was imposing; with it, he turned her knees to jelly. Or was it the fact that he’d read her so easily? Most people couldn’t, or didn’t bother.
“Well, secrets about other people, then,” she managed to say, though her voice sounded as if she were out of breath.
“Tell me some,” he commanded softly, bending his head close to hers.
* * *
If he were collecting data on his level of attraction to Miss Stanley, they would show his fascination doubling every five minutes. Just the feathery brush of her full skirts sweeping against his legs had his hair standing on end. He had inclined his head close to her and he could smell a perfume of some rich, exotic sweetness—vanilla, perhaps. He was overwhelmed with a desire to lick from her collarbone to her ear as she gave him a sly look from under her lashes.
“All right, my lord. Do you see Lady York over there, looking miserable?”
“It’s because she’s fallen in love with her husband’s brother, who is dancing right now with Miss Angelton. I believe they’ve become intimate—Lady York and Mr. York, not Mr. York and Miss Angelton. Miss Angelton, for her part, was quite set on luring Captain Baycroft away from his interest in Prudence Pennyford. But she was one of the many who looked very interested in your arrival here, so she may abandon that campaign this evening if she gets any encouragement from you.”
“Is this your way of discouraging my attentions from you?”
Miss Stanley emitted a bark of laughter. “Certainly not. If it were, I would not choose Miss Angelton for you.”
She gave an easy shrug. “Too quiet. You’re not known for your stimulating conversation, either, so to put the two of you together, well—you’d have a very quiet dining table. Of course, maybe that’s what you’re looking for?” She raised her eyes quizzically.
He’d laughed aloud at her impertinent observation of his conversational skills and was still chuckling. “So I’d be better matched, say, with someone like you?”
“Me?” she demanded with genuine incredulity. “I would drive a man like you mad with my prattle.”
Her skin was the smoothest he had ever seen—a golden silk free of a single blemish, save one mole on her cheek. The dimpled side. The mounds of her breasts were pushed upward, nearly spilling out of her stays so he was almost trembling for want of freeing one—just to see its unfettered shape. He imagined the color her nipples might be—like the plum red of her lips, perhaps. Or maybe lighter, like a peach.
“Wouldn’t I?” she challenged. The assumed perfection of her breasts aside, it was this directness that most captivated him—it drew him out of himself, forced him to engage with her. She’d been absolutely right—he was a dreadful conversationalist, yet here he was, dancing with the most beautiful lady at the ball, and they hadn’t had one moment of awkward silence.
“You might drive me mad,” he muttered, “but it probably wouldn’t be for your prattle.”
Her brow wrinkled as she decoded his meaning, then her lashes flew open and a color came to her cheeks.
“What about me would drive you mad, Lord Westerfield?” she asked carefully, as if determined to verify her suspicion.
When he didn’t answer, she pressed him with her characteristic bluntness. “Were you speaking crudely?”
“Of course not, Miss Stanley.” He smothered all hints of the smile he felt.
“Truly, Lord Westerfield? Because I believe I just saw you trying to look down the front of my dress, did I not?” Her voice was teasing, but then her cheeks flushed a deeper pink as she probably realized she’d pushed way beyond propriety. She stumbled on, removing her hand from his and touching her neckline. “Or were you noting the conspicuous lack of adornment here, in comparison with the other ladies?”
She couldn’t quite hold his eye, choosing instead to sweep her gaze across the ballroom to hide her fluster. He wondered if she often dragged her own flaws out in the open as a means of distraction.
“Do you feel you are lacking?” he asked in a low voice, genuinely interested. In his mind, he was already traveling to the jeweler to find her the perfect necklace.
“Of course not,” she said too quickly. “I have an orange dress; what more could a girl desire?”
It was such a ridiculous statement—because of course, no lady but she would desire a dress of that color. He was certain she knew it and was again poking fun at herself, and he burst into laughter. She threw him a grateful look.
The dance ended then, but he had no intention of letting Kitty Stanley leave his arms. Ever. “Another dance, Miss Stanley?”
She gave him a shocked look and then whirled right and left, surveying the ballroom. “Is there someone you’re trying to make jealous?”
He snorted with more laughter. She truly didn’t seem to understand he was courting her.
She shrugged. “Well, I had a few dances promised, but none with partners who will arouse such jealous attention from the crowd, so lead on, my lord.”
The idea of other suitors rankled him. He gazed around the ballroom, looking for the possible rivals. He felt a flash of anxiety about courting Miss Stanley. It could be a long and drawn out process of calling on her and escorting her to balls, without ever knowing if she returned his affection. Now, to realize he had competition irritated him. “To whom are your other dances promised?”
“Oh, just friends. Gentlemen who wish to be seen with a lady in orange, that sort of thing.”
He laughed, somewhat relieved. She gazed up at him with an appraising look. “Why did you come here, tonight, my lord?”
“To dance with you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Not really,” she said doubtfully.
“Did my brother put you up to this?”
He frowned, perplexed. “What?”
“Did you lose a bet to him, or something? And he asked you dance with me to help boost my status?” She blew out her breath. “I’m not doing that poorly,” she muttered sulkily. “It’s only my second season. I started late, you know.”
“I didn’t know. And don’t be silly—I did not come for your brother.”
She looked at him for a moment. “All right—don’t tell me why you’ve come. I’ll find out eventually, my lord. I’m quite good at ferreting out motives.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said mildly, slightly disappointed she did not believe him to be an actual suitor. But her mention of her brother gave him an idea of how to put the odds in his favor.
Because Harry had no intention of losing this bet.
* * *
“Two dances with Lord Westerfield?”
“I know, I can’t tell what he’s about.”
“I think he is about courting you, love,” Teddy said as he swooped her around the room in a waltz. Her best friend Wynn’s rakish brother, Teddy—Lord Fenton—was her favorite dance partner, by far. A childhood friend, he had the same sardonic sense of humor as she about society, and the grace and ease of a man who is far too comfortable with women than he ought to be. She never worried about being held too close by him or giving the wrong signal, as they had a perfect understanding between them that dancing together meant nothing more than it was.
“Certainly not. Harry Westerfield does not court anyone. He gambles and solves mathematical problems.”
“Well, he looks like he wants to eat my liver right now, so I think you are mistaken.”
She tried to crane her head to catch sight of Lord Westerfield, but Teddy was spinning her about the room too quickly and everyone was a blur.
“There is no reason on earth he would court me. No one courts me. I’m the sort who is better enjoyed from afar.”
Teddy snorted. “What sort am I, then?”
“The sort that is better enjoyed by the already married. Speaking of which, Lady Dunning has been making eyes at you all night; are you ignoring her on purpose?”
“Dear lord, yes. I had her once and she was worse than a virgin. Now she won’t stop sending me love letters. I’m trying to discourage her attentions.”
“You could foist her onto Captain Morse. He seems positively wretched since he returned from the war. A little attention might do him some good.”
“He has a wife!”
“Yes, but I believe his wife is otherwise occupied.”
“Well, no wonder Captain Morse is wretched.”
“Exactly. So if you could redirect Lady Dunning, everyone would win!”
Teddy gave another snort. “And precisely how do I do that?”
“Tell her you’re stepping back because a dear friend of yours is madly in love with her and you don’t want to cause a rift. I’ll hint to her who it is.”
Teddy laughed as the short dance came to a close. “Thank you, Miss Stanley,” he said with a graceful bow and mock formality. “I shall take your advice and I appreciate your assistance with the matter.” He brought her gloved hand to his lips for a kiss, looking over her shoulder as he did. “Mmm hmm,” he said with satisfaction.
“What?” she said and started to turn around, but he stayed her with a slight tug on her hand. “Don’t look yet—he’s burning a hole through your back with his gaze.” Teddy gave her a wink and departed as she digested that information.
She met Wynn, who was also leaving the dance floor, and hooked elbows with her friend. “How was he?” she asked in a low, conspiratorial tone about Wynn’s dance partner.
Wynn made a disapproving sound in her throat, though her expression remained bright and friendly to all who might see her.
She nodded, still smiling pleasantly.
Wynn shrugged. “Is it just me, or does it seem like we’ll never get married?”
“It’s just you. I’m hoping for a few more years of freedom, myself.” She looked around and saw her brother leading a young lady out on the floor. “Although with Maury’s gambling habits I’ll be wearing these same dresses next season.”
“I think you should write to Edward about it,” Wynn said, referring to Kitty’s other brother, the practical one, who was respectably married and ran their family’s estate in Penrock.
“He’d be furious. He’s doing all the work in Penrock to ensure a decent profit, while Maury’s squandering it at gambling halls and brothels. And what’s poor Edward to say or do about it, anyway?”
“Well, he’ll find out soon enough, won’t he?”
“Yes, unless Maury’s luck changes.”
Wynn chuffed. “If I were you, I’d try to find a husband as soon as possible, before Maury’s reputation crumbles and drags yours down with it.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s possible. Or, better said, I do a fair enough job of damaging my own status with my blunt tongue. I’ve heard what they say about me—that I’m odd, and that ‘no man would want to hear that tongue at his dining table.’”
“Don’t be silly. Plenty of men would enjoy your conversation. I always do.”
She gave Wynn a fond glance. “You have to say that, dear, you’re my best friend.”
“No, it’s true! Teddy thinks so as well.”
“It was Teddy who told me what the gentlemen say about me,” she said drily.
Wynn giggled. “Then don’t believe it—he was teasing you. Anyway, I think you just pretend you don’t want a husband so you don’t have to make an effort. You prefer to act the wallflower so you can criticize rather than jump in with the rest of us.”
Kitty bit her lip. That observation came closer to the truth than was comfortable. Seeing she’d struck a nerve, Wynn gave her hand a squeeze. Kitty forced a smile and gave a faint shrug.
* * *
Maury watched Lord Westerfield stonewall conversation with his companions, fixing his attention instead on Kitty. For the first time in all the years he’d known the man, he could tell how he held his cards. In retrospect, he should have known the moment Westerfield agreed to attend this ball it was for Kitty. But he’d never seen his friend take an interest in any woman before. He sauntered over to stand beside him.
“Penchant for orange dresses?”
Westerfield gave him a sidelong glance. “Yes.”
He was surprised at the acknowledgment, but not with the attraction. His sister was beautiful, and while many found her aggressive style improper, it was born of a witty intelligence, which might very well entertain a man like Westerfield, whose silence probably stemmed from boredom with most conversation. Whether Kitty would find him attractive, he couldn’t say. But he did know she needed a man at least as bright as she, and Westerfield surpassed that requirement.
“Twenty thousand for her hand in marriage.”
Maury nearly choked on his champagne. He cleared his throat, knowing full well he’d just shown his hand. Not that Westerfield hadn’t known it to begin with. It was exactly the amount for which he was in debt to Spencer’s.
“Ten to sign the contract, ten when the marriage is complete.”
He bit back the question foremost in his mind—why did Westerfield believe it was necessary to buy his sister’s hand? But to ask the question would suggest it wasn’t necessary, and of course, he needed the money.
He watched his sister as she danced with a handsome young captain in the army. Westerfield’s eyes narrowed when they swept past and Maury understood. He was shoring his bets. He was locking in the prize through legal contract to minimize any gamble relying on a lady’s fancy.
How would Kitty take to this arrangement? He pushed the thought from his head immediately. It didn’t matter. He needed this money. They both needed it. And Westerfield was an excellent choice for any young lady.
He held out his hand. “Deal.”
Westerfield shook it, looking satisfied. “I’ll bring the contract and a cheque by tomorrow.”