She could not be more than twenty, and therefore would not have been introduced into society before he had left for Scotland. It was impossible that she knew him, so perhaps he had been so long in Scotland, the rules had changed.
“I suppose it is, if you enjoy these sorts of things,” he managed to say without slurring.
“Do you mean to say you do not like to dance?”she asked, and her expression seemed more than a little crest-fallen.
“Oh, no. I enjoy dancing. It is just that this evening in particular…” How should he explain it? He allowed his gaze to sweep over her as he weighed his response. She was a sweet beauty. Her chestnut tresses were swept up in a becoming fashion, with only a few rebellious tendrils teasing at the back of her slender ivory neck. Her eyes were dreamy dark almonds, fixed in anticipation upon his lips, as though waiting for something—some pearls of wisdom to drip from them.
“Yes, Your Grace?” she prompted. Baldwyn noted her full soft pink lips.
He cleared his throat. And his eyes traced the length of her light gold dress which clung to her every curve…curves in all the right places. Why couldn’t his grandmother have chosen someone who looked like this? Instead, he would be forever chained to a straight-framed girl in pigtails who flung mud balls in order to get his attention.
The thought brought him sailing back to the present conversation. And he remembered his indignation at the prospect of the impending announcement of his engagement.
“This particular evening is the beginning of my destruction,” he finally answered. “My grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Durbin and Evil Incarnate, has—with neither my knowledge nor my consent, mind you—struck a betrothal contract on my behalf with a wretched little wench with a wiry frame and mousy brown hair. No more than a child she is!” It gushed out of him before he knew it was coming.
The lady stared at him with wide dark eyes as though she had been struck. Baldwyn supposed it did sound shocking, coming out with so little concern for proper conversation. He was perhaps more than a little foxed.
“Pardon me, my lady. It’s just that the horrid woman called me back from Scotland rather suddenly, and sprung this news on me just this afternoon. I mean, I hardly know the chit, but what I do know of her, I can tell you, is enough to cause a gentleman to do himself in.”
“I s-see. She…She sounds perfectly dreadful, I’m sure,” the lady said, her voice almost a whisper. She seemed to be recoiling for some reason. Had what he said truly been that shocking?
Baldwyn bit into something gooey spread over a piece of bread and eyed his companion with concern.
“She threw mud balls at me,” he added after a moment.
Her face grew pale in an instant, and she shook her head in horror. Here was a woman who understood exactly how appalling that act had been! He smiled at her to offer some comfort. “It was several years ago, of course. Both my horse and I have since recovered from the trauma,” he said with a hint at humor in his voice, hoping to lighten her burden on his behalf.
The lady did not seem comforted, so he made up his mind to ask her to dance. As he turned to offer his services to her, however, the music stopped and he heard the unmistakable voice of the dowager shatter the peace of the room.
“Lords and ladies…” she began.
Baldwyn’s stomach clenched into a tiny knot, and he regretted eating anything. He glanced at the lady, whose eyes seemed to be scrutinizing his every move.
“It is my pleasure to welcome my grandson, the Duke of Paisley, back to London, and…” She seemed to be drawing the announcement out as long as possible. Probably hoping to prolong his agony. “…to announce his engagement to the lovely Lady Anastasia, daughter of Lord Marks.”
He could feel the blood rushing from his face and pooling in his feet, making them feel like his boots were full of millstones. His ears felt as though they had burst into flame at his grandmother’s announcement.
“Your Grace,” the melodic voice floated to him once more. Baldwyn glanced towards her. “I believe that’s our cue.”
She slipped her slender gloved hand around his arm, and smiled weakly. The reality of what she said sunk in slowly, weaving its way past the whiskey and the brandy and the indignation. Even then his disbelief blinded him, but she forced him to move forward.
Forward to the dreaded fate of being forever fettered to the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.